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Wednesday, 17 February 2010 17:10

Swain jail may finally see return of federal prisoners to help offset costs

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In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.

“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.

For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.

Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.

The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.

This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.

“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”

Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.

“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”

Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.

Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.

Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.

Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.

“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”

At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.

“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”

Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.

As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.

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