Local legislators are preparing to fight yet another attempt by the state to close the only minimum security prison west of Asheville.
The 125-bed Haywood Correctional Facility in Waynesville, commonly referred to as the Hazelwood prison, has landed on a list of potential closures as the N.C. Department of Corrections looks for ways to scale back its budget.
It’s not the first time the state has considered shutting the Hazelwood prison. The aging facility was built in the 1930s and now sits between a neighborhood and commercial district.
“The prison has been recommended a couple of times for possible closure, but some of us in Western North Carolina that represent Haywood County have been able to stand at the front door and put it off,” said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. “This is not something new — it’s been discussed.”
Haire is hopeful that legislators will be able to save the Hazelwood prison this year, as they have in the past. But he says that the fight is already becoming more difficult, and that legislators can’t hold off forever.
“I think that down the road at some point it’s going to be a greater issue, and it is now, about keeping it open,” he said. “One of these days it’s going down.”
Haire said it won’t matter how powerful the coalition of legislators from the region are or how hard they fight.
Legislators have always been able to save the prison, arguing that it benefits the area. The facility provides jobs for 44 people. Inmate labor has fueled hundreds of public works projects around the region — everything from picking up roadside litter to construction projects at public schools and government buildings.
“It’s a very important facility not only for serving the minimum security needs of inmates, but they do a lot of work across Western North Carolina,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.
Haire estimated that inmate labor saves western counties, “thousands in construction projects.”
Additionally, the prison is conveniently located for families to visit their loved ones behind bars.
“It gives folks hope for their family to be able to visit them and hopefully help to transition them back to everyday life,” Haire said.
Two other minimum security lockups are on the chopping block, too. The three facilities, among the smallest in the state, have been grouped together as one item that could save the state $3.4 million per year if all were shut down.
That begs the question of just where inmates would go.
“Where would these prisoners be sent?” asked Haire. “I don’t know. That’s where we’re really short on beds at the time, is minimum security.”
The state’s prison population recently spiked for the first time in many years, Haire said. State projections show that starting in the next fiscal year, North Carolina will have nowhere to put an estimated 2,300 inmates. California plans to deal with a similar problem of too few beds and not enough money by releasing prisoners.
The rise in prisoners in N.C. is linked to the state’s sentencing system, which leaves judges with little discretion and clogs prisons.
“The prison population is going up much faster under structured sentencing, where judges are tied into this sentencing grid,” Haire said.
Queen said the Hazelwood prison is actually on another list — “not for closure, but for being reconstructed as a new and modern minimum security unit serving Western North Carolina.”
“WNC needs a new minimum security unit that is modern, a little larger, and that is both economical in size and an economical new building,” said Queen.
Queen said he and other local legislators have continued to fight to keep the Hazelwood prison open until the facility is updated or a new one is built nearby.
“We’ve been fighting to keep it open until we can get it rebuilt,” he said.
Haire thinks Western North Carolinians should be thinking about whether, and where, they’d want another minimum security facility located. The issue of having a new prison in the region came up several years ago, but no site was ever picked.
“There was no site identified, but a lot of people became very concerned because they thought it was going to be in their community,” Haire said.
Haire says residents need to weigh the benefits of having a prison in considering whether a new one should be built in the region. For many, it may be a case of “Not in my backyard,” but if the prison comes, so would added benefits of jobs and public works labor, Haire says.
“I think we’re going to start having to look to the future, and I think the future is now,” he said.
Queen doesn’t anticipate a large amount of opposition to a facility that houses only low-risk inmates.
“The minimum security unit doesn’t have that level of pushback,” he said.
Queen said an updated facility was initially on his list of priorities for this legislative session, but the economy will likely put a hold on plans.
“The economy has changed priorities,” he said. “Though it doesn’t necessarily change the demand for prison beds in our state. It may actually exacerbate the demand.”