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Jail expansion project enters critical phase

Tentative plans for a jail expansion in Waynesville have generated spirited debate. File photo Tentative plans for a jail expansion in Waynesville have generated spirited debate. File photo

Opponents of Haywood County’s proposed $16 million jail expansion project are ramping up pressure on county commissioners to consider alternative proposals that would devote more resources to keeping people out of jail. 

“Before we actively ruin peoples’ lives with a jail, we have to address these drivers of incarceration,” said Jesse Lee Dunlap, an organizer with local grassroots advocacy group Down Home North Carolina. “We want some focus on keeping people out of jail. We have, right next door, the example of Swain County where they recently expanded their detention center but because they did not address the drivers of incarceration, they are already full and having to ship inmates to other counties.”

Back on Nov. 2, 2020, Haywood County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes presented the results of a needs assessment report on jail capacity to commissioners. 

Haynes said that in 2015, the average daily population of the jail was 116.7 inmates per day, and that inmates would typically stay for almost two weeks. After a slight decline in population in 2016, jail population rebounded to 117.6 in 2018, and then to 124.3 in 2019. Projections for 2021 suggest that number could increase 5 percent by 2025, and by as much as 20 percent through 2045. 

Given that the current rated capacity of the jail is 149 inmates, if those increases come to be it would leave the jail nearly full every day. But full utilization of all 149 beds is rare, due to something called operational capacity. An example of operational capacity given by Moseley Architects, the firm that prepared the initial schematics of what the expansion could look like, is when a woman occupies one bed in a two-bed cell. If a male comes into the jail, that empty bed obviously can’t be used for the male inmate. Operational capacity of the jail is about 75 percent of its rated capacity. 

Between 2015 and 2019, the average daily population of the jail exceeded both rated and operational capacity more often than not. When that happens, inmates must be shipped off to other jails, at the county’s expense. 

That data is what led to the proposal of a jail expansion project that would up the rated capacity of the jail to more than 240 inmates, depending on the final floorplan. 

The proposed expansion would cover more than 30,000 square feet, at a finished cost of $375 per square foot. Additional costs including renovation, site work, the demolition of the existing annex and an $875,000 recreation yard put the cost at $14.5 million. Adding in furnishings, and contingency appropriations put the final price tag at $16.4 million. 

Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead said during the November meeting that the county remains in a very strong financial position and has been paying off existing debt at a fast clip, but the expansion would likely still cost 2.5 to 3 cents on the county’s current property tax rate. Staffing the expansion would add to that tab, to the tune of another cent or two in property taxes. 

During the Nov. 2 presentation, an ambitious timeline for the project was outlined to get the expansion opened by late 2023 after an 18-month build process. Commissioners hoped to award a contract to an architect in early January of this year, but Morehead explained that COVID-19 and cold weather had delayed that. 

Four architectural firms responded to the county’s RFP. The top two firms were interviewed, but a contract hasn’t yet been awarded because a geo-tech firm is still taking core samples at the proposed building site to ensure the ground can support the new structure. Once that’s complete — maybe two weeks from now, according to Morehead — the county can choose an architectural firm to design the building and award the contract. Morehead thinks that could ultimately happen around mid-March. 

Although some of the forecasted growth in Haywood’s jail population can be attributed to the county’s increasing population, resistance to the proposed jail expansion project formed almost immediately because it does not address the growing opinion that many of those people shouldn’t be in jail in the first place. 

Pretrial incarceration can be economically devastating to people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. In 2018, 32 percent of Haywood’s inmates were in jail awaiting their day in court. A further 65 percent of people in jail that year were being held on misdemeanor charges. 

But perhaps the biggest problem with the expansion, according to Down Home NC, is that what many people need isn’t incarceration, it’s rehabilitation — especially substance abuse treatment. 

“Jail does nothing for the people in jail, which also means it also does nothing for the citizens of Haywood County,” said Hazelwood resident Crystalyn Jackson, a member of Down Home who spoke at a press conference before a commission meeting on a frosty January morning just two months after the proposal was brought to commissioners. “There’s no rehabilitation help in jail. Even if it was just a class or two, it could help get things started.”

Jackson said she’d served three separate sentences in prison due to drug-related charges — none of which helped her recalibrate her life into a productive one on the outside. 

That’s why members of Down Home are crafting what they call an “alternative budget” that they intend to present to commissioners possibly as early as next week. 

The budget lays out a number of programs that are intended to ameliorate the root causes of incarceration, including licensed clinical social workers in middle and high schools, reopening the 24/7 Urgent Care unit at the Balsam Center, opening a day center and funding in-patient rehabilitation, among other things. 

Those items, however, aren’t without a price tag of their own. Hiring seven social workers, for example, would cost at least $360,000 a year per Down Home’s protections, and in-patient rehabilitation services can run upward of $20,000 per individual. Funding them would also create government competition with private rehab centers like Red Oak Recovery, in Leicester. 

As presented to The Smoky Mountain News, the alternative budget would run upward of $1 million a year if not much, much more. 

Still, said Dunlap, the long-term staffing costs of the proposed jail expansion project would dwarf the $16.4 million construction cost. According to a 2015 publication by New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, construction accounts for just 10 percent of the lifetime cost of operating a jail — the bulk of the bill will come in payroll. By extrapolation, that could mean that Haywood’s $16 million jail expansion would end up costing more than $160 million over the life of the project. 

Services provided by other county agencies for administration of the jail — like finance, human resources and information technology — adds another 10 percent to the cost. 

“We object to this exorbitant expenditure before first considering less expensive ways to improve the lives of all Haywood County residents at a much lower cost,” Dunlap said. “If we don’t address the drivers of incarceration, this situation will come up again and again and again. If we look at the real cost of this jail, what we are asking for is much less than that.”

Kevin Ensley, longtime Haywood commissioner and current chairman of the board, says he thinks the county and opponents of the jail expansion are actually closer on the issue than they both realize, and that no one wants jail to become a revolving door for Haywood County citizens and taxpayers. 

“We’re doing these things now. They may not be secular programs, but we’re doing it with faith-based programs,” Ensley said, of efforts to keep people out of jail. “When you look at counties of like size as Haywood County, we’re doing a pretty good job of fighting recidivism. I feel like Down Home maybe isn’t giving us credit for the good that we have done.”

As examples, Ensley cited existing diversionary programs by Super Court Judge Brad Letts as well as the Haywood Pathways Center, a brainchild of Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher that serves to equip former inmates — and potential future inmates — who may struggle with homelessness, substance use disorder and/or employability issues. 

Ensley further stated that he’d also talked with architects to see if the demolition of the underutilized, outdated annex couldn’t be scaled back so that some space could be devoted to further programming that would address the root causes of incarceration. He added that he’d certainly be open to listening to Down Home’s recommendations, once they’re made. 

“I believe in diversionary programs,” he said. “I feel we’ve done a god job with that, and that our numbers prove that.”

However successful diversion and substance abuse treatment programs may become in Haywood County, however, Ensley still believes the expansion project is a necessity.

“These programs won’t totally replace the jail,” he said. “Because of our population growth, I think this is something we’re going to be happy we have down the road.” 

The next meetings of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners will take place at the Historic Haywood Courthouse in Waynesville on Monday, Feb. 16 at 5:30 p.m. and on Monday, March 1 at 9 a.m. Meetings are also televised, and available online. Visit www.haywoodcountync.gov for more information. 

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