07/14/05 — Still waiting for word on prison

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Still waiting for word on prison

By Turner Walston
Published in News on July 14, 2005 1:45 PM

A proposal to close the federal prison camp at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is still waiting on congressional approval, officials said today.

Also scheduled for closure are federal prison camps at Nellis AFB, Nev., and Eglin AFB, Fla., along with a federal prison camp in Allenwood, Pa.

"As far as we know, it's still a proposal in front of Congress at this time," said Larry Whitman, special assistant for the Seymour Johnson prison.

Whitman said the plan is part of the federal Bureau of Prisons' budget proposal.

"Add this, cut this," he said.

Since the proposal to close the Seymour Johnson prison camp was announced in early February, Whitman said the staff at the prison has decreased.

"When the process started, we had approximately 84 employees," he said. "Our staff is dwindling. Now, we're down to 72."

As of today, FPC Seymour Johnson held 504 inmates, according to the Bureau of Prisons web site, although Whitman said that number fluctuates daily.

"There hasn't been any change," said Carla Wilson, a spokesman with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Ms. Wilson said the proposal was intended as a cost-saving initiative.

Cindy Gardner of Federal Prison Consultants, a prison advocate group based in Philadelphia, said closing the prison camps would be a mistake. The prisoners perform a variety of jobs at the base, enabling airmen to concentrate on more important duties, she said.

"It would be a travesty to close the facilities," Ms. Gardner said.

Civilian authorities in Goldsboro and Wayne County have fought the proposal to close the prison, citing the loss of jobs it would create and the loss of labor to local charitable organizations.

Because three of the camps are attached to military bases, the public has a misperception about them, Ms. Gardner said.

The facilities that are being requested for closure are what are considered to be 'Club Feds.' The perception of the public is that they're not actually doing jail time."

In reality, Ms. Gardner said, the facilities run more smoothly because of the military base relationship.

"They are given food that is reflective of their religion or what is available to the military base. There may be more fresh vegetables, or more fresh fruit. These are the issues that cause the perception," Ms. Gardner said.

Inmates are able to work on the military installations in a variety of roles.

"It gives them something constructive to do," Ms. Gardner said of the work available on the bases. "It's not because they're out playing polo."

Whitman said inmates at Seymour Johnson help with maintenance and janitorial tasks, as well as recycling of used materials. A few provide skilled labor, Whitman said.

Outside of the base, Whitman said inmates perform community service, working with Habitat for Humanity, the City of Goldsboro, Wayne County Public Schools, Parks and Recreation, Lighthouse of Wayne County and the Community Arts Council.

If the federal prison camp closes, Whitman said, the Air Force would likely have to contract some of the work to private companies.

Ms. Gardner worries that closing the minimum security facilities would subject white-collar criminals to harsher treatment at more traditional prisons.

"You're not putting these people in the right crowd," she said.

"I think the Bureau of Prisons is trying to solve their poor money management with closing prime facilities that run very well," she said.