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Swain hunts for inmates to fill overbuilt jail

When 400 people poured in to Swain County’s jail one day in late September, Sheriff Curtis Cochran was thrilled.

And on an equally unusual note, the crowd at the jail was more than happy to be there. Of course, the group of Swain County residents hadn’t done anything wrong — instead, they were anxious to catch a glimpse of the brand new, $10 million building their taxes had paid for.

Swain County officials have been just as anxious for the facility to open its doors, which it finally did this week on Dec. 8. The county purposely overbuilt the new jail so it could accommodate future growth, which accounts for the hefty price tag.

The county got a 40-year loan for the jail with annual payments of $454,000, two of which the county has already made.

“We don’t need that big of a facility in the next five or six years, but with the way crime is going, we probably will need it in the next 10 or 20 years,” said County Manager Kevin King.

By overbuilding, however, the county took a gamble. It must come up with twice as many prisoners to fill the cells in order to pay for the 25 to 30 percent increase in operating costs over the old facility.

Swain is banking on other counties sending their inmates to the new jail to fill the slots or the county will be left holding the bag for the bigger jail.

Cochran said the sheriff’s office has been in contact with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and counties as far east as Randolph that have expressed an interest in bringing inmates to Swain’s new facility.

The county earns $50 per day for housing inmates from other counties and $75 per day for housing a federal inmate.

If they can’t fill the new jail, the county’s budget, which is already critically tight, will be squeezed even further.

“We desperately need it to pay for itself,” County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones said of the jail.

Swain County is low on cash, and not in a good position to supplement the jail if it can’t pay for the increase in operating costs. The county’s fund balance — akin to its savings account — is at an all-time low of 9 percent of its annual operating budget, hovering just above the mandatory 8 percent the state requires counties to keep in their coffers. The state recommends each county keep a minimum 14 percent fund balance on hand.

“It’s increased some (over the past month),” said King. “But we’re still borderline as far as the Local Government Commission is concerned.”

The delay in the jail opening hasn’t helped matters. An opening was scheduled for March of this year, but was delayed for months.

“We need it to be open, and we’d like it to be open and full,” said King. “That helps us out in these economic times.”

More prisoners, please

The county is hanging its hopes on filling up the more than 100 beds in the new jail to pay for the added cost of running a bigger jail.

The current jail costs $50,000 a year in overhead, from utilities to supplies. The new jail will cost as much as $70,000 in overhead.

For now, the county has also hired more jailers to staff the larger facility. But, if the county can’t fill the extra cells within six months, the extra jailers will have to be laid off, King said.

Whether the county will see an influx of more prisoners remains to be seen. The old jail could house 54 inmates and held an average of 30 to 50 a day, according to Cochran.

Even though the old jail wasn’t generally at capacity, Cochran is confident the new one will fill up. The deteriorating condition of the old jail deterred federal officials and those from other counties from bringing inmates to Swain, Cochran said.

In contrast, the new jail is full of state-of-the-art technology. Video cameras are hooked up in every inch of the jail and beam footage to a control room with multiple television screens. Doors can be locked and unlocked remotely. Visits with prisoners are no longer done in person, but through a video screen that allows authorities to monitor every conversation.

“More than likely, we’ll be busting at the seams before too long,” Cochran said.

County officials are counting on it.

“In this economic time, it would be nice to have an additional revenue source to help subsidize the cost,” King said.

And there’s another bonus, King told commissioners — “If the facility is filled, you won’t have to raise taxes.”

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