05/01/05 — Will it stay or close?

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Will it stay or close?

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on May 1, 2005 8:45 AM

Sometime the Federal Bureau of Prisons will formally ask Congress for permission to close the prison camp at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

When is sometime? That’s what the camp’s 84 employees would like to know.

“The decision could come tomorrow or it could be this summer,” said Michelle Bryant, president of Local 3977 of the American Federation of Government Employees and a prison employee. “We don’t know when we turn on CNN or the evening news if we’re going to hear that we’re being closed down.

“That’s the part that gets everyone — the waiting.”

The clock has been ticking since February when the Bureau of Prisons announced it wanted to close the camp, along with other minimum-security prisons in Allenwood, Pa., at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The closures are part of $160 million in budget cuts requested by the Bush Administration.

The Bureau proposes to move the inmates to “satellite camps” outside higher-security prisons where they would perform groundskeeping and maintenance, the same type of work they now do at Seymour Johnson.

According to information provided by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones’ office, it costs the federal government more than $9 million annually to operate the Seymour Johnson camp. The Bureau of Prisons also estimated the camp, which opened in 1991, will need $1.7 million in repairs over the next 10 years.

The closures will need to be approved by Congress. So far, the Bureau has not submitted its list to the Judiciary committees. “Nothing has changed,” said spokeswoman Traci Billingsley last week.

But the Bureau’s director, Harley Lappin, has been visiting the prisons to meet with employees and discuss their options in case of closure. He is scheduled to visit Seymour Johnson’s camp in mid-May.

Three of Wayne County’s congressmen — Jones, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr — have asked Lappin for more information about the proposal. The prison camp cannot be considered on its own, they said in a March 28 letter.

“Any potential cost-savings the Federal Bureau of Prisons may realize would be more than offset by increased costs to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, due to the loss of the labor force the prison camp provides,” the letter stated.

But the Air Force has been quiet about the prison camp’s status. Reportedly, the base is completing a study to determine the cost of hiring contractors to do maintenance and groundskeeping versus the cost of supervising inmates and maintaining and replacing their equipment.

The Seymour Support Council is waiting for the Air Force’s go-ahead before it campaigns to keep the prison camp.

Complicating the issue is the uncertainty surrounding the base’s future.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will present a list of military bases to Congress and the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. If Seymour Johnson is on the BRAC list for either closure or downsizing, the prison camp could become a moot point. If the base could get an expanded mission, the camp could become more important to retain.

The Bureau of Prisons has repeatedly said that its closure plans have nothing to do with BRAC. But the BRAC issue has kept city and county officials from open lobbying on the prison camp’s behalf.

Privatization on rise

Ironically, the proposed closings come at a time when federal cells seem to be at a premium.

In 2004, the nation’s prison and jails held more than 2.1 million inmates, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics announced last week. That was an increase of more than 48,000 people in a year.

In federal prisons alone, the number of inmates rose by 10,095 last year, according to the Justice Department. That equals a 6.3 percent increase.

The Bureau of Prisons is increasingly turning to privately operated prisons to handle the overflow. As of mid-2004, 99,000 inmates were housed in private facilities. Those figures include nearly 15 percent of all federal prisoners.

The Bush Administration is pushing an agenda of privatizing minimum- and low-security custody, said Ron Rubottom, Mid-Atlantic regional vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees.

If the current trend continues, more than 8,000 federal correctional officers will lose their jobs, Rubottom said in a telephone interview from his office in Morgantown, W.Va.

While Lappin, the Bureau’s director, has said Seymour Johnson’s employees would be given the chance to transfer to other prisons, the closest minimum-security facility is in Butner, north of Durham and about 90 miles away. The next closest options are out of state.

“We really don’t think it’s fair,” Rubottom said. “The employees have bought houses there. They have their children in the schools. They’re a part of your community. They will be uprooted for what we consider a very poor reason.”

Life as usual

The proposed closure has not affected the Seymour Johnson Federal Prison Camp’s day-to-day operations, said spokesman Rodney Tabron. “We’re staying on procedure until we hear differently.”

The only change has been the number of inmates has fallen. “We housed up to 650 people in late 2004, but we’re around 560 now. The last two or three months, it has started to level off,” he said.

Located near the Slocumb Street gate, the prison hardly stands out on the base. It has no bars, fences or guard towers. Its entranceway is vaulted with skylights. It looks more like a middle school than a prison.

The Bureau of Prisons operates prisons at five levels of security, and prison camps are the lowest. Inmates are screened to ensure they have no history of violence or attempts to escape custody. The prison does checks every two hours, but prisoners still have plenty of times when they have little or no supervision. Still, the camp hasn’t had an escape, which they call “a walk away,” since 2000.

Nearly all of the Seymour Johnson prisoners are from the southeastern U.S., and many are from the Charlotte area and western North Carolina. Slightly more than 70 percent were convicted of drug-related crimes, Tabron said. Others committed property or white-collar crimes. The average sentence is five years.

Minimum-security institutions are typically work- and program-oriented. “It’s required that they work or work on their education,” he said. “We have mandatory G.E.D. classes for people who don’t have their high school diplomas.”

Prisoners also can pursue associate degrees through classes taught by Wayne Community College instructors.

“The Bureau of Prison doesn’t want to just warehouse inmates; you have to do something to rehabilitate them,” he said. “These people are going back into the community and we hope they’ll be adjusted for it.”

The prison also supplies considerable manpower to the community.

Habitat for Humanity of Wayne County uses 12-15 inmates six days a week. A carpentry class taught at the camp by a licensed contractor assembles walls for Habitat homes. Inmates have recently begun building roof trusses, assembly storage buildings, and help out at Habitat’s warehouse and store.

“It’s been tremendous,” said Habitat President Bill Edgerton. “That’s hundreds of volunteer hours they’ve given us. Without them, we’d really have to beat the bushes for volunteers.”

Prisoners have also helped with the Arts Council of Wayne County’s landscaping around its headquarters on Ash Street. They assisted at the Wayne County Museum and the Lighthouse of Wayne County.

During the summer, they have cut grass, buffed floors and moved furniture at Wayne County public schools. They’ve done work at the N.C. Guard Armory.

Some have talked to classes at area colleges and schools and to people who have been assigned to Wayne County’s Day Reporting Center as a sentencing alternative.

Will that labor force be available in 2006 and beyond? It’s not looking favorable.

Wayne Community College is operating on the premise that it will no longer be teaching at the camp after September or so, President Ed Wilson said. “But the kind of classes we teach there, we can either go or stop without much notice.

“We just need a decision.”

Employees on hold

So do the camp’s employees, who have been in limbo for three months now.

“We don’t know from day to day what our future holds,” Ms. Bryant said. “We have a lot of husbands and wives working here who may not be able to transfer to the same place.”

Nobody wants to be forced to move to either Butner or Bennettsville, S.C., the closest minimum security prisons.

And Butner’s a commute, although Ms. Bryant, a Goldsboro native, did it for five years. She got up at 4 a.m., was on the road by 5:15 and then didn’t get home until after 6 p.m.

“Eighty-two miles each way,” she said. “You’d have to change your oil every month. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a vehicle.”

Now she lives near the base’s Slocumb Street gate. “I could ride my bike to work if I wanted,” she said.

As union president, Ms. Bryant was in Washington, D.C., when Lappin announced the proposed closures.

Local 3977 represents about a third of the prison camp’s employees.

“He emphasized that the Bureau wanted to close prisons that are ‘old and dilapidated.’ We opened in 1991; we’re far from old and dilapidated,” she said.

She has closely reviewed the camp’s budget and has identified more than $1.2 million in annual savings that could be made. The camp has already consolidated some of its administrative functions with the Butner complex, but she believes the two prisons could work even closer.

She has shared her ideas with Mayor Al King, local congressmen and anyone who will listen.

“We have got to get the word out that our friends and neighbors need to call their representatives and senators and tell them that they do support us and want the camp to stay,” she said. “We don’t want to go anywhere. This is our home.”

They’ll find out sometime if they get to stay.