03/24/14 — Lawmakers back county jail plans

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Lawmakers back county jail plans

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 24, 2014 1:46 PM

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A sign near the gate of the former Neuse Correctional Institution is seen late last week. Wayne County officials are hoping to convert the former state prison into a new county jail. The Wayne County Board of Commissioners is negotiating with state officials to forge a deal that would turn the facility over to the county.

Members of Wayne County's legislative delegation say they not only support the state giving the county the former Wayne Correctional Center for use as a jail, but that they would look favorably on possibly exempting the county from having to bring the old prison up to state jail standards -- at least at the start.

The review is mixed as to whether or not the request could be approved during the General Assembly short session that is scheduled to convene May 14.

State law gives the authority to create standards for the operation and construction of county jails to the Department of Health and Human Resources.

The 2013-14 state budget that closed the prisons also allows a county to lease a state prison and to be exempt from compliance with those minimum standards, said Kristi Clifford, DHHS spokesperson.

The exemption would apply for as long as the lease is in effect.

However, Ms. Clifford said the law only refers to a prison unit lease and that DHHS currently does not have any additional information on other possible exemptions.

Also, along with the state standards, there are compliance requirements with the state building and fire codes, she said.

Commissioners have not discussed a lease.

The process of conveying closed prison sites to counties is not without precedent, said George E. Pettigrew, justice reinvestment administrator with the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

"We had a similar situation in Iredell County when our prison closed," he said.

In that case, the county took over the property several years after it had closed and currently uses it to house female inmates, he said.

"I think they had to had to upgrade it because it had been closed for so long," he said.

"I do believe that we will address it in the short session," Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said. "I have talked personally with (Division of Adult Correction) Commissioner David Guise, and he has indicated to me that it has been determined that there is not another state use for that building, and that he was going to put it on the fast track to be conveyed to the county."

Dixon said he does not know what the timetable will be, but that government "cuts red tape lengthwise."

Dixon said he is unfamiliar with the technical side of how jails and prisons can be used.

"I do know that there is room for negotiations as to how strongly the state will hold someone's feet to the fire," he said.

Dixon said that sometimes the most practical and common sense approach to resolving an issue does not strictly adhere to regulations.

He said he would be amiable to that as long as fire and other safety codes were still followed.

Dixon also said he would favor granting the county an extended time period if improvements did have to be made so that the county could spread expenses out over the course of several years.

Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said he is unsure if the local bill could be handled during the short session. There are procedures that must be followed, but it is possible they could be expedited, he said.

Pate said local legislators are familiar with the possible use of the prison as a jail. The late Sheriff Carey Winders had particularly been interested in that possibility, he said.

"I think it is an asset the county can use," he said.

Local lawmakers had known that the prison was on the closure list and could have fought it, he said. Instead, they decided not to because of the property's potential value to the county, he said.

Pate said he is unfamiliar with regulations regarding the prison being renovated to serve as a jail.

"I don't know about that," he said.

However, if the level of security is not as high for certain prisoners housed there, it might be possible the facility would not require the renovations, he said.

Commissioners have mentioned using the prison as is to house inmates convicted of misdemeanors.

Conveying the property to the county has been the idea from the start, Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, said.

Bell said he is not sure how quickly the transfer could be completed, since there are times that government works slowly.

"I feel confident on our end that we can get it conveyed," he said. "As far as upgrading, there are minimum safety standards. As far as transferring without upgrades, there is a safety factor for our sheriff's deputies, employees and inmates. I feel confident the Sheriff's Office can handle it if it gets conveyed over."

However, Bell said he was not familiar enough with the requirements to know if an exemption would be possible.

Bell said he is confident the Sheriff's Office and Department of Public Safety could work out the details of the transfer.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, could not be reached for comment.

By a 6-1 vote, commissioners last week voted to send a second round of letters to local legislators and the governor asking for the property, but this time they also asked that the county be exempted from bringing the facility up to jail standards.

Commissioner John Bell, who chairs the commission's Detention Center Advisory Committee, voted no.

Jail and prison facilities are not the same and that renovating the prison to jail standards is a matter of safety for employees, he said.

Commissioners also need input from Sheriff Larry Pierce and his detention center staff, he said.

But others on the board countered that the exemption would provide flexibility to allow the county to gradually make any renovations that are expected to be costly.

Also, having the exemption does not mean the county would use it, they said.