Western North Carolina is losing one of its strongest municipal work forces. And a quick look at their record of projects shows that, in towns and counties around the region, they will be sorely missed.
But this loss isn’t exactly the result of layoffs or furloughs. It’s what will happen when the Haywood Correctional Center closes at the end of this year, and its 125 inmates — who serve as a nearly free labor force for the region — are shipped off to larger prisons in the state system.
It’s been a good ride while it lasted for communities benefiting from the prison work crews.
They’ve painted public pools in Haywood and Jackson counties, pulled weeds from the dam at the Waynesville watershed, assembled playgrounds, painted schools, done landscaping on municipal buildings, cleaned up the grounds of state parks, assembled school equipment. One crew built an entire boat ramp by hand on Lake Fontana. They shoveled snow from sidewalks in downtown Waynesville one particularly rough winter.
“At one time we had three crews,” said Donnie Watkins, the prison’s superintendent.
And that’s just in the community work program, which offered up inmates to local governments, schools and the like to add free manpower to a whole range of projects.
Inmates also staff litter pickup crews, and assist the N.C. Department of Transportation with projects on almost a daily basis. This week inmates labored along the roadsides in a Maggie Valley subdivision, repairing old landslide damage.
In the transportation department program alone, inmates logged 122,656 hours between 2006 and the end of July. Worked out to minimum wage, that’s $889,256 of work that’s been almost donated to communities from the state line all the way to Buncombe County. The cost of inmate labor is 70 cents per person each day. It’s a service, said Watkins, that will be noticeable when it’s gone.
The state-run prison is being shuttered, along with three other small-scale minimum security prisons, to save money. It’s cheaper for the state to run fewer big prisons rather than more smaller ones. But the cost to the local community will be immense.
The community work program has been in business for eight-and-a-half years, and tracking the exact projects inmates have helped with over that time is a little difficult. There are so many that to go through the whole record would probably be a box or two of papers to sift through.
But sitting around in the prison’s front office one Thursday afternoon, a gathered group of officers are able to rattle off a laundry list of maintenance and beautification projects, from the offbeat to the mundane.
Haywood Correctional has, until now, supplied more man hours for community projects than any other prison in the region by far. Part of that is because it’s a minimum security place, so by definition, a good deal more of the inmates are eligible to work in the community with less intense supervision.
Plus, say the officers, they’re pretty hard workers. A common problem with the program was recipients of the inmates’ help overestimating how long a project would take. Sometimes, said one officer, you’d take out an eight-man crew and they’d finish the work scheduled for a week in one day.
That kind of efficiency — and the unbeatable price — will be noticeable in its absence in places like Waynesville.
“There’s no question it will definitely leave a dent in the town’s workforce,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “We’ve depended on the inmate crews. I‘ve been here 17 years, and we’ve used work crews to do that work continually almost during that time.”
The place where their efforts will be most noticeably missed, said Galloway, is in litter pickup. Crews pick up trash all over the city, and there won’t be anyone left to do it when they’re gone.
“We certainly don’t have the money to hire people,” said Galloway. “We’ve been dropping jobs the last several years, most of which have been in public works, so we don’t have the work force to do that kind of work. Unless it’s volunteers, it’s probably not going to get done unless we put different priorities in our work and not do something else to pick up litter.”
The litter pickup is where prison staff foresee the most impact, too. As one officer noted, the counties will be filthy come January 1. The litter crews pick up trash from Canton to Murphy, and local dumpsters are quite a bit fuller thanks to their efforts.
On one recent trip down the stretch of N.C. 107 that runs in front of Western Carolina University, inmate crews collected 181 bags of trash, and it had only been a few weeks since their last pass over the road.
Loss of jobs
Of course it’s not just local governments that are losing in the prison’s closure. The entire prison workforce — 42 employees — will be out of a job when the place is shut down by the end of the year.
They can apply for other jobs within the N.C. Department of Corrections, but most would have to leave the area if offered a position, and there just aren’t that many jobs to give in the department, said Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.
“There is a reduction in force process that we will try to place people in other agencies, but we’re kind of limited in that part of the state,” said Acree.
The inmates themselves will be scattered across the rest of the state’s prisons, housed wherever there’s a bed in the right kind of facility.
That, said Watkins, is likely to put a strain on a lot of the local inmates who have family visitors or are allowed out occasionally on home leave.
“They’ll be housed from Buncombe County, across the state, still in minimum custody,” said Watkins. “They’ll be housed much further east, which will put a burden on family members. You’re going to have a lot of families out here who are not going to be able to see their family members who are incarcerated.”
For the facility itself, its fate still stands undecided.
The state has the option to repurpose it, or it could be declared surplus property and sold or leased to someone else.
That’s an option that Haywood County commissioners are keeping their eye on, considering the possibility of leasing it from the state should the department of corrections offer it up.
If the state decides it doesn’t need the prison, said Acree, priority will be given to anyone who wants to continue using the place for criminal justice purposes.
And until the doors officially close in coming months, inmates will still go out on work detail nearly every day, giving the region a few more months of clean streets before the workforce is gone for good.