08/08/13 — County eyes closing prison

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County eyes closing prison

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 8, 2013 1:46 PM

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State budget cuts are forcing the closure of Wayne Correctional Center, allowing county officials to eye it for possible use as a future jail.

It is "way too early" to say what the state will or won't do with Wayne Correctional Center once it closes in October, said Pam Walker, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety, but county officials are already paying close attention.

Wayne County commissioners have slowed their planning for a new jail in hopes that the state will convey the prison, which will be closed due to budget cuts, to the county.

Commissioners have even projected in the county's capital improvement plan a $4 million renovation project at the prison in fiscal year 2015-16 just in case the state agrees with such an arrangement. Costs for a new jail could easily top $50 million.

There is recent precedent for such an agreement currently playing out in Gates County in the northeastern part of the state, where a minimum security prison facility that closed in October 2009 has been conveyed to the county.

Gates County Manager Jon Mendenhall has some advice for other counties interested in following in their footsteps.

"The one piece of advice that's critical for any entity to keep in mind, but especially counties, is that the state is, can, and should be an important partner in providing and leveraging critical services for residents," he said. "What we've pitched to the state requires our own investment in labor, materials, operations, and maintenance, for the good of us locally, but also regionally.

"Given the track record of our regional emergency management cooperation this, for us, represents a logical next step to providing services and partnering to share services/leverage critical resources as much as possible."

Wayne County Commissioner Ray Mayo, chairman of the commissioners' Facilities Committee, has said that three of the county's state legislators have indicated their support the property transfer to the county.

County officials see the facility as a better option than building a new jail to alleviate the chronic overcrowding that is forcing inmates to be housed in other counties.

As of Aug. 7, the existing 200-bed jail at the corner of William and Chestnut streets housed 237 inmates. The medium-security Wayne County Correctional Facility on Stevens Mill Road near Cherry Hospital can hold 428 inmates and has a staff of 150.

Currently, the county has 76 inmates in other facilities at a cost of approximately $50 per inmate per day, for a total of $3,800 daily. Housing the other 37 inmates outside the county would add another $1,850 daily for a total of $5,650.

The larger 428-bed prison would not only be able to handle the inmate population, but provide enough additional space that could allow the county to make money by housing inmates from other counties.

As the state makes the transition to closing the prison, no new inmates are being added, Ms. Walker said. The state also is working to find jobs for the employees there, she said.

Traditionally, the state does look to see if closed-prison properties can be used, possibly for law enforcement, Ms. Walker said.

But again, she said, it is too early to say what the state would do with the facility or what the cost might be if an agreement is reached with the county.

Senate Bill 281 signed into law last month by Gov. Pat McCrory conveyed the former Gates County Correctional Facility to the Gates County Board of Commissioners for consideration of $1. The 96-bed prison had a staff of 31.

According to the bill authorizing the transfer, the property will be conveyed to the county as long as it is used for county government purposes and all costs associated with the transfer are to be borne by Gates County.

Mendenhall said the county has been working very closely with the state to transfer the property for county use, and that with the property located next to the county DOT maintenance yard, their goal is to develop the facility it a larger emergency management operations center operated and maintained by the county.

He said that while the project has taken about two to three years to really gain traction, it's been worth it, given the lower project costs.