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Jail expansion opponents ask county to reprioritize

As promised, members of Down Home North Carolina presented to Haywood County commissioners a budget alternative that prioritizes treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration. 

“Instead of $16.5 million allotted to build a new jail, why not choose life over punishment?” Victoria Castle asked Haywood commissioners during the Feb. 15 regular board meeting’s public comment session, before proposing $1.8 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, $1.5 million in housing assistance and $73,000 for law enforcement crisis intervention training. 

Castle’s wasn’t the only ask speakers made of commissioners in regard to plans for a jail expansion that would serve a growing population through 2045. The next speaker, Rev. Peter Constantian, stressed he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his Cruso United Methodist Church when he made a far more provocative inquiry. 

“The cost I’m concerned about is the moral cost,” Constantian said. “How would Jesus spend $16 million in Haywood County?”

Both Castle and Constantian asked that commissioners meet with them to consider the reprioritization of what they say is the project’s estimated $160 million lifetime cost — most of which comes in the form of payroll for staffing the proposed jail expansion.

Each of the commissioners told the speakers that they’d heard from constituents on the jail issue and that their comments would be taken under advisement while the county continues to consider its budget for fiscal year 2022, but Commissioner Tommy Long responded with some questions of his own. 

“I wonder what Jesus would do,” said Long. “Did you ever stop to think in His final act as a mortal man there were two others hanging on the cross with Him, why didn’t he take both of them with him? As the population increases, there’s gonna be more people that really need to be in jail, just like that third thief on the cross. Sometimes as bad as you pastors try, there’s some that slip through the cracks.”

Long reiterated that commissioners weren’t “jail mongers” and that statistics show the county has far less beds per capita than similarly-sized counties, demonstrating a need for the new facility. 

County Manager Bryant Morehead later revealed that commissioners and opponents of the jail might just have a bit more time to meet and to come to an agreement — the county won’t award architectural fees for the proposed jail expansion likely until June, much later than the first quarter of 2021 as had been initially proposed. 

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