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Swain’s oversized jail may finally be breaking even, but not for long

Swain County’s oversized jail will lose about one-third of its current inmate population and a sizeable revenue stream when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opens a new justice center, complete with its own jail.

Swain’s jail — three times larger than necessary to handle its own local inmate population — was overbuilt intentionally with the hope of housing overflow inmates from other counties for a fee, in turn offsetting the cost of the jail. But with other counties in the region building newer, bigger jails of their own, Swain’s jail has remained underused.

Its best customer for jail beds has been the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which lacks a jail of its own and houses 25 inmates a night at Swain’s jail on average. It amounts to almost a third of the jail’s nightly population.

And at $40 per inmate per night, that translates to about $365,000 in revenue a year — going a long way toward covering the annual debt payments on the jail of $454,000.

Throw in a stream of eight to 12 federal inmates a night, and the county for the first time this year is actually breaking even since the new jail opened 2008.

But, that good news could be short-lived. The tribe is now building its own jail, slated to open in late 2013, and will no longer need to house inmates in Swain.

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“Any time you take $365,000 out of the revenue, it’s going to be a struggle,” said Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran. “There is no way you can say it’s not going to hurt.”

The Eastern Band received an $18 million grant in 2009 from the U.S. Department of Justice to build a justice center on the reservation, which will include a 75-bed jail and house tribal court operations.

When deciding how big to make their jail five years ago, Swain leaders did not know that the Eastern Band was contemplating building its own, said County Manager Kevin King.

King added, however, that the county will survive without the money coming in from housing the tribe’s prisoners.

“That’s fine. It’s no big deal. We will make do,” King said. “We’ve done without them.”

Anyway you cut it, jails are a money losing proposition for counties. Counties are responsible for holding inmates while awaiting trial — those charged with crimes but not yet convicted, at which point they go into the state prison system. While all counties must bear the cost of running jails, the issue for Swain is paying for a larger-than-normal jail for a county its size.

Including operations and debt payments, the county spends $1.1 million on the jail annually. It is getting an estimated $526,000 for housing inmates from other counties, the Cherokee reservation and the U.S. Marshall Service.

The loss of revenue from housing Cherokee inmates will mean that the already budget-strapped county has to allocate more out of its own pocket to cover jail debt payments. Swain County has another 30 years until the facility is completely paid off.


Good idea at the time?

In late 2008, the county premiered the jail, which was built to replace a dilapidated, ancient and overcrowded one.

“It was just awful. It was one of the worst facilities probably in the state,” King said.

Leaders did not want Swain to become the next Mitchell County, King said, citing the deadly fire at the Mitchell County jail where eight people died because the building was not up to code. It did not have a sprinkler system and the jail cells couldn’t be programmed to unlock automatically.

“Everybody was scared because of the lawsuits that came out of Mitchell County,” King said.

At the time of the Mitchell County incident, Swain’s jail did not have a sprinkler system either and had finicky, sticky manual door opening mechanism — and it was at capacity. The old jail housed 70 inmates but only had beds for 60.

“We had eight to 10 people sleeping on the floor,” King said.

The county looked at paying other counties to house its inmates, a common practice, but all the nearby counties refused to take them because they did not have the room.

“We were kind of just stuck,” King said.

So, the decision was made by the board of commissioners to construct a new, modern jail and increase its capacity to 109 beds. King justified the county’s choice, saying that leaders were building for the future and compared to other county jails, the cost of Swain’s was bargain.

“We were building for 15 years in the future,” King said. “They were just assuming that we would eventually have to have it.”

But when the improved facility finally opened, it struggled to find inmates to fill its beds.

Not only did other counties build new jails as well, but outside prisoners from the U.S. Marshall Service had temporarily stopped placing its inmates in Swain County because of the condition of its old jail. Cochran had to spend two years winning them back once the new jail opened. But the U.S. Marshall Service had already gotten used to housing its prisoners at the Cherokee County jail instead, and so Swain still doesn’t get what it used to.

“Cherokee County seems to get the bulk of the inmates for some reason,” Cochran said. “That is a U.S. Marshals’ decision.”

At one time, the Cherokee County jail had between 40 and 50 federal inmates, the sheriff added, whereas Swain County’s jail currently houses 8 to 12. Counties are paid $55 a day per federal inmate.

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