AshevilleCity - County Gov.Leslee Kulba

Time for a new jail or a better idea


Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton proposed a new $21-million facility. It would house only women, and the existing facilities would be converted to house only men. It would have 190 beds in four housing units. Laundry from all the county’s jails would be done at this location, and because the county was considering outsourcing its cooking for prisoners, this facility would have only a warmup kitchen.

Lieutenant Josh Wilhelm explained the prison system isn’t allowed to fill up rooms like a hotel. Instead, it’s more like a pet store where fish are housed in a community tank, a semi-aggressive tank, and an aggressive tank. While the current prison system has 604 beds, 22 are reserved for prisoners who assault others while imprisoned. Then, there are 24 step-down beds. Laws prohibit persons with severe mental health conditions and law enforcement officers serving time from being bunked in the community tank. Predators can’t be mixed with youthful inmates. Then, women and men cannot be housed in the same unit.

The county was most stretched for beds for women. Analyst Lee Crayton said the models missed by only two months the time at which the county would need to expand its capacity for female detainees. Transporting women to other counties, he said, would become a standard practice if the problem was not addressed. The men’s facilities would not need to be expanded for another 7-12 years.

Driving the increase in the number of women serving time is addiction. Duncan called attention to lists of top-five crimes for sentences of different lengths. Women spending 60 days or more were arrested for possession of strong narcotics or for crimes related to drugs, like stealing to get drug money. Presenters repeated it was difficult to find nearby jails with space for the women because the upsurge in women being arrested for drug crimes was a nationwide phenomenon. Duncan estimated 41 percent of people entering the prison system are on psychotropics.

Another reason to build more prison space is the county will soon renegotiate its contract with the federal government. Currently, the county houses on average about 100 federal inmates, and it receives $100 a day from the federal government to house them. The county also accepts prisoners from other counties in the state with a reimbursement rate of $40 per day. Detaining inmates in other counties’ prisons, however, costs the county $40-60 a day.

The cost of clothing, feeding, and overseeing a prisoner on a day-to-day basis is rather fixed. The greatest uncertainty is medical costs. Duncan and Sheri Powers, who is in charge of finances for the sheriff’s office, said the county is required to make sure prisoners’ conditions don’t deteriorate. So, somebody having a heart attack while in prison could prove very expensive. The medical costs for state and federal prisoners, however, are covered by the sentencing jurisdictions.

Duncan said following the renegotiation, he is expecting to get $130 per day per federal inmate, and the new prison would allow the county to hold an additional 100 federal prisoners. He added state funds could not be used to build a facility to house federal inmates, so the additional inmates would be housed in the old facilities. Detaining more prisoners at the higher rate is expected to garner $7,665,000 a year, compared to the current federal reimbursement of around $3 million.

The current prison system operates with 172 employees, whose salaries and benefits account for $12.1 million in a $15.8-million operating budget. The new building would be financed for twenty years with annual payments of $1,420,000. Salaries and benefits for 38 new officers would add $2,369,732 annually; and operational costs, including the financing and maintenance of a transport vehicle, would bring the total annual increase to $5,342,600. If all goes as planned, the increase in federal revenues could offset about 90 percent of the new facility’s costs.

Duncan said Buncombe County was second only to Mecklenburg County in diversion successes, but there was still room for improvement. For example, the increase in women incarcerated on drug offenses suggested opportunities for treatments in lieu of sentencing. Duncan said the prisons are “almost program-heavy,” offering anything from Alcoholics Anonymous to GED classes to anger management to yoga. Programs won’t be renewed if an unreasonably high number of participants assault others while detained or recidivate afterwards.

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