When Swain County opened a new $10 million jail last fall with 109 beds — four times bigger than necessary for its own inmates — it was banking on housing federal prisoners and those from other counties to subsidize the cost.
Instead, the number of inmates housed from outside the county has shrunk dramatically, not grown. As a result, the oversized jail has been a drain on county coffers and proved a source of contention in an on-going feud between the sheriff’s office and county commissioners.
County Manager Kevin King says the onus falls on the sheriff to court inmates from other counties to fill the jail.
“He said it wasn’t his place to get contracts, but it is,” King said. “It is going to take the sheriff talking to the other sheriffs.”
But Sheriff Curtis Cochran says the commissioners should have secured commitments from other counties before embarking on the bigger jail, which was already in the works when Cochran took office in late 2006.
“I believe one thing I would have done was to have contracts in hand,” Cochran said. “I would want to think if I didn’t have contracts in hand I would have thought about a smaller jail.”
The county was supposed to line up commitments as a condition of its federal loan to build the jail. Terms of Swain County’s loan with the U.S. Rural Development program stipulated “the applicant obtain written commitments from the other parties who have verbally committed to wanting access to jail beds.”
That never happened, however. Instead, the sheriff at the time, Bob Ogle, got verbal commitments, King said.
No demand for jail beds
Since Cochran took office, Swain has seen the number of inmates it houses from Graham, Cherokee and Haywood counties, as well as federal prisoners under the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service, all but dry up. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only outside entity contracting with Swain for jail space on a significant level.
The reason appears to have little to do with Cochran, however.
Like Swain, both Haywood and Cherokee counties have built new jails and can now handle their own inmate volume in-house. When Swain embarked on a new jail in 2005, it was common knowledge that other counties were doing so as well, but Swain overbuilt anyway.
Graham County is one of the only counties that still faces chronic over-crowding at its jail. But instead of sending inmates to Swain, it now sends almost all of its overflow to the new Cherokee County jail, according to Graham County’s chief jailer.
Cherokee County is closer for Graham, saving time and money on transport. In addition, Cherokee County charges only $40 a night per inmate while Swain charges $50 a night.
Cherokee County’s new jail — sporting 150 beds — is even bigger than Swain’s. It is often only half full, however — even with Graham County’s overflow and federal prisoners that once went Swain’s way — adding to the glut in jail beds the region seems to have these days.
As for the decline in federal prisoners, that trend was under way prior to Cochran taking office in late 2006. The U.S. Marshall Service had come to view Swain’s old jail as inadequate and unsafe. It was riddled with cracks and leaks and plagued by temperamental locks. But the biggest concern was no sprinkler system, the dangers of which came to light when eight people were killed in a fire at the Mitchell County jail.
“After the fire in Mitchell County there were concerns about older facilities without adequate fire suppression,” said Kelly Nesbit, chief deputy with the western district of the U.S. Marshall Service.
Nesbit began pulling federal prisoners out of the Swain jail and housing them elsewhere. Although Swain opened its new jail last fall, federal prisoners have yet to return. Nesbit said they simply got used to using other jails, and it has taken a while to get Swain back on the radar as a viable facility.
“The federal government moves slow. It just take a while for things to turn around,” Nesbit said.
The U.S. Marshall Service has 15 jails west of Interstate 77 that it uses to house prisoners, Nesbit said. But Bryson City is the location of a federal court, so it would be convenient to start housing them there again, he said.
Cochran blames county leaders for the decline in federal prisoners. He said the county threw away a chance to put in a smoke evacuation system in the old jail that would have satisfied safety concerns and allowed them to keep housing the federal inmates.
The Marshall Service even came through with a $30,000 grant to help pay for the smoke suppression system, but Swain never acted on the grant and it was rescinded.
Cochran said the Marshall Service pulled strings to get the grant for Swain and was perturbed Swain decided they didn’t want it after all.
“The $30,000 allocated for Swain County was only provided after numerous phone calls and letters between myself and headquarters,” U.S. Marshall Gregory Forest wrote in a letter to Sheriff Bob Ogle in December 2003. Forest wrote that he wanted to continue their “long working relationship” with the county, but that the county “must complete this process without delay.”
The Marshall Service perceived it as a snub, Cochran said.
“They seemed to think that Swain County just wasn’t interested in housing their inmates because they wouldn’t accept the money after they went to great lengths to get it to help upgrade the jail,” Cochran said.
King said the county walked away from the grant because it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the system.
“The system would have cost a lot more than $30,000. It would have been around $100,000. That was just not doable,” King said.
Ultimately, the decision cost the county more in lost revenue than it would have spent to install the system. The county would have made its money back on the system in less than two years if federal prisoners had continued to flow Swain’s way at the same volume as years’ past. Instead, the county is now entering its third year without housing federal prisoners.
Cochran wasn’t sheriff during the episode over the sprinkler system and said he didn’t understand why they weren’t getting federal prisoners anymore. Cochran recently called a meeting with the U.S. Marshall Service to figure out what the problem was.
“After I got to investigating it a little bit and talked to the right people as to why we weren’t getting inmates, we started working on it,” Cochran said.
County blames Cochran
County commissioners suggested Cochran is to blame for a declining number of inmates being housed at the Swain jail from outside the county. The theory was vocalized during a county budget workshop in June. Cochran heard about the accusation and challenged King to name the counties that allegedly had a problem with him.
“I said ‘If there is somebody out there let me know so I can make amends,’” Cochran said. Cochran asked for the clarification three times, including twice via email.
King responded that he knew of no entity in particular other than a miscommunication with the Eastern Band last year. The Eastern Band, however, is the only entity that actually houses more prisoners with Swain now than it did three years ago.
Cochran said he is doing what he can to court other counties.
“When we moved into the jail I sent out an email to every sheriff’s office in the state and let them know we were in our new facility and had bed space,” Cochran said.
Cochran also met with the Graham County commissioners in the spring, and recently met with the U.S. Marshall Service.
One cloud hanging over the Swain jail is the escape of a murder suspect earlier this year. The suspect had been slipped a key by a jailer who ran away with the suspect. Cochran said the inside job was not a reflection on the security of the jail itself.
The escape has no bearing on whether to house overflow inmates there, according to Nesbit with the U.S. Marshall Service and the chief jailers from Graham or Cherokee counties.
“That’s happened in federal institutions before,” Nesbit said of escapes. “It is just part of the kind of business we are in.”
Declining inmate nights
Out-of-county inmates housed in the Swain jail have declined drastically under Sheriff Curtis Cochran compared to the last year of former sheriff Bob Ogle’s tenure.
2005-06 8,029 inmate nights from out-of-county
2008-09 3,940 inmate nights from out-of-county