A new life in the cards for Haywood’s prison?

The oft-threatened closure of the state prison in Haywood County has finally come to pass, but by now, it hardly comes as a surprise.

“Every year, they would always say it is going to close,” said Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

And so every year, county leaders appealed to mountain legislators to save the prison, who in turn mounted political pressure on their colleagues in the General Assembly to put the prison back in the budget.

The prison was spared the chopping block, but the victory was always short-lived, giving way the following year to cries of “here we go again” and another round of lobbying.

“I think our representatives at the state level had indicated inevitably it was going to close. They could push it off or prolong it, but inevitably they wouldn’t have the votes to keep it,” Kirkpatrick said.

“At some point we realized we were going to lose it,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

It’s not clear exactly what the state will do with the prison it abandons. Haywood County has an idea, however, that’s still in its infancy and might not come to fruition, but county commissioners are giving a hard look.

Commissioners are contemplating leasing the prison from the state and going in to the inmate business. For $40 a night, the county would house prisoners from other places — from other counties that don’t have enough space in their own jail or from the state itself.

Commissioners say they won’t plunge headlong toward owning a prison yard unless it makes sense.

“You don’t just necessarily want to take it because you can,” Swanger said. “You want to make sure what you are taking. We have to make a wise decision.”

They asked County Manager Marty Stamey to put together a feasibility study and hope to hear back in another week.

The fact-finding mission would include estimated utility costs, staffing and upkeep.

With the county jail next door, the prison wouldn’t need its own cooks or medical officer or canteen. It could piggyback on the jail’s support staff and really only need the guards. The number of guards could be adjusted depending on how many prisoners materialized.

The county could also operate just half the facility, cutting down on utilities.

The beauty of the deal may be the rate the state will lease it for. Commissioners are hoping for the bargain rate of a $1 a year.

Why such a good deal? It’s doubtful the state would find a buyer for a 128-bed prison on the open real estate market, and at least leasing it to the county would keep it from being a maintenance headache and liability for the state.

No matter how cheap the lease is, the county doesn’t want to be saddled with a deteriorating facility that becomes more work than it’s worth. But based on an inspection of the prison by the County Maintenance Director Dale Burris, it is in surprisingly good shape.

“The buildings are old but very well maintained,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley

The big kicker, however, is whether there are actually inmates out there who need to be housed somewhere.

When someone is first charged with a crime, counties bear the burden of housing them in their local jails. Only after they go to trial and get sentenced by a judge are they shipped off to a state prison.

The state doesn’t seem terribly pressed for space: the existing population at the Haywood prison is easily being absorbed into the state’s other prisons. So demand for bed space, if it exists, would likely come from other counties who have maxed out their own jails.

But there’s the rub.

“A lot of the counties have built new jails,” Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles said.

Over half the counties bordering Haywood have recently built new jails of their own and have room to spare: Swain, Jackson and Madison counties all have new jails, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is about to build one.

Cherokee County also has built a large new jail, capturing overflow inmates from other far western counties.

With so few jails at capacity, there might be little overflow for Haywood to capitalize on — if not for a new state law that would keep inmates serving minor sentences in county custody. (see related article.)

The new law would pay counties to house inmates convicted of misdemeanors and serving less than 180 days. In the past, they would have entered the state’s prison system.

It will give Haywood another 14 prisoners a year, not enough to make leasing the shut-down state prison viable. But Haywood could volunteer to keep some of those convicted misdemeanor prisoners on behalf of other counties, who have enough room for their own inmates but not enough room to take on the extra load.

“We are trying to determine how many of those there actually are in the state,” Swanger said, adding however that there probably won’t be that many

And that may sideline the whole idea.

“I am skeptical about short-term profitability,” Swanger said.

Suttles is more inclined to strike while the iron is hot, assuming that the inmate population is bound to grow in the future.

“Eventually, I think there will be a need for it, to hold inmates. It would be real handy,” Suttles said.

The fences around the perimeters of the state prison and county jail are practically touching already.

Commissioners are contemplating a worst-case scenario where the county essentially mothballs the site for now to see if more demand materializes. And in the meantime, the county looks out for its interests by keeping something else from moving in there, something that may not be compatible with the county’s neighboring jail or public dumpster station.

“If we don’t lease it and the state sells it, who is going to be our neighbor?” Swanger said.

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