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Moving forward: Commissioners express support for use of old prison by trio of ministries

A plan to turn the old state prison campus in Hazelwood into an epicenter for changing lives is moving forward fast. 

Reforming lives on a wing and a prayer

coverA proposal to convert a closed-down state prison into a halfway house and homeless shelter in Haywood County is gaining steam.

The old prison was given to the county two years ago after the state shut it down, but the county has no real use for it. So it’s been sitting there empty, just beyond the backdoor of the county’s own jailhouse. 

SEE ALSO: Local churches lift the lives of homeless, incarcerated

Faith-based groups that regularly counsel and minister to inmates in the jail have come up with a plan to convert a section of the old prison into a halfway house — a place where recently released inmates can be reformed and remade upon release from jail.

For bargain price, Haywood County is proud new owner of shuttered prison

fr prisonFor a little less than the cost of a cup of coffee, Haywood County is buying the small, closed-down state prison in the Hazelwood community of Waynesville.

The county is buying the 128-bed minimum security prison from the state for just $1. However, the county will not take ownership of the complex until Jan. 1.

A new life in the cards for Haywood’s prison?

The oft-threatened closure of the state prison in Haywood County has finally come to pass, but by now, it hardly comes as a surprise.

“Every year, they would always say it is going to close,” said Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

And so every year, county leaders appealed to mountain legislators to save the prison, who in turn mounted political pressure on their colleagues in the General Assembly to put the prison back in the budget.

The prison was spared the chopping block, but the victory was always short-lived, giving way the following year to cries of “here we go again” and another round of lobbying.

“I think our representatives at the state level had indicated inevitably it was going to close. They could push it off or prolong it, but inevitably they wouldn’t have the votes to keep it,” Kirkpatrick said.

“At some point we realized we were going to lose it,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

It’s not clear exactly what the state will do with the prison it abandons. Haywood County has an idea, however, that’s still in its infancy and might not come to fruition, but county commissioners are giving a hard look.

Commissioners are contemplating leasing the prison from the state and going in to the inmate business. For $40 a night, the county would house prisoners from other places — from other counties that don’t have enough space in their own jail or from the state itself.

Commissioners say they won’t plunge headlong toward owning a prison yard unless it makes sense.

“You don’t just necessarily want to take it because you can,” Swanger said. “You want to make sure what you are taking. We have to make a wise decision.”

They asked County Manager Marty Stamey to put together a feasibility study and hope to hear back in another week.

The fact-finding mission would include estimated utility costs, staffing and upkeep.

With the county jail next door, the prison wouldn’t need its own cooks or medical officer or canteen. It could piggyback on the jail’s support staff and really only need the guards. The number of guards could be adjusted depending on how many prisoners materialized.

The county could also operate just half the facility, cutting down on utilities.

The beauty of the deal may be the rate the state will lease it for. Commissioners are hoping for the bargain rate of a $1 a year.

Why such a good deal? It’s doubtful the state would find a buyer for a 128-bed prison on the open real estate market, and at least leasing it to the county would keep it from being a maintenance headache and liability for the state.

No matter how cheap the lease is, the county doesn’t want to be saddled with a deteriorating facility that becomes more work than it’s worth. But based on an inspection of the prison by the County Maintenance Director Dale Burris, it is in surprisingly good shape.

“The buildings are old but very well maintained,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley

The big kicker, however, is whether there are actually inmates out there who need to be housed somewhere.

When someone is first charged with a crime, counties bear the burden of housing them in their local jails. Only after they go to trial and get sentenced by a judge are they shipped off to a state prison.

The state doesn’t seem terribly pressed for space: the existing population at the Haywood prison is easily being absorbed into the state’s other prisons. So demand for bed space, if it exists, would likely come from other counties who have maxed out their own jails.

But there’s the rub.

“A lot of the counties have built new jails,” Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles said.

Over half the counties bordering Haywood have recently built new jails of their own and have room to spare: Swain, Jackson and Madison counties all have new jails, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is about to build one.

Cherokee County also has built a large new jail, capturing overflow inmates from other far western counties.

With so few jails at capacity, there might be little overflow for Haywood to capitalize on — if not for a new state law that would keep inmates serving minor sentences in county custody. (see related article.)

The new law would pay counties to house inmates convicted of misdemeanors and serving less than 180 days. In the past, they would have entered the state’s prison system.

It will give Haywood another 14 prisoners a year, not enough to make leasing the shut-down state prison viable. But Haywood could volunteer to keep some of those convicted misdemeanor prisoners on behalf of other counties, who have enough room for their own inmates but not enough room to take on the extra load.

“We are trying to determine how many of those there actually are in the state,” Swanger said, adding however that there probably won’t be that many

And that may sideline the whole idea.

“I am skeptical about short-term profitability,” Swanger said.

Suttles is more inclined to strike while the iron is hot, assuming that the inmate population is bound to grow in the future.

“Eventually, I think there will be a need for it, to hold inmates. It would be real handy,” Suttles said.

The fences around the perimeters of the state prison and county jail are practically touching already.

Commissioners are contemplating a worst-case scenario where the county essentially mothballs the site for now to see if more demand materializes. And in the meantime, the county looks out for its interests by keeping something else from moving in there, something that may not be compatible with the county’s neighboring jail or public dumpster station.

“If we don’t lease it and the state sells it, who is going to be our neighbor?” Swanger said.

State prisons, county jails play musical chairs with inmates

Counties with jail beds to spare will soon be able to make a little cash housing state prison inmates.

Under a new program introduced by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year, minor criminals with short sentences won’t be housed in state prisons anymore. The new measure will mean more heads in local jails and, for some counties, a little more money in local funds, too.

Currently, county jails hold inmates charged with a crime and awaiting trial. Once sentenced, they are shipped off to state prison, unless their sentence is less than 90 days, in which case they serve the short time in the jail.

But starting next year, county jails could end up housing inmates with sentences up to 180 days who would have otherwise ended up in the state system. It will only apply to prisoners convicted of misdemeanors; felons will still go into the state system.

Essentially, it’s a logistical move, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. They’re the group that’s going to manage the project.

“The legislature believes that there is available capacity in the county jails, but we’ve never had a mechanism to match up the heads with the beds that are available,” said Caldwell.

The program is completely voluntary. Local sheriffs don’t have to take on the prisoners if they don’t want to.

But for those who do have extra room, they’ll get paid to house these prisoners that would have otherwise ended up in the state’s prisons. How much counties would get is not yet known, according to Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.

“The payment structure has yet to be determined, whether it’s a flat rate or something else,” said Acree. But, he said, what is certain is that on January 1, the department of corrections will get out of the business of housing misdemeanor criminals.

It’s welcome news for some counties that have new or unfilled jails where empty beds are eating up money.

“If you’ve got a county that has beds sitting vacant, there’s a certain amount of cost built into that bed anyway, so the cost putting an inmate in there is incremental,” said Caldwell. “We think that those sheriffs who have vacant beds would be glad.”

Especially if it means they can make a little money to cover their jail overhead.

Originally, state lawmakers wanted to save money by dumping the misdemeanor criminals on counties without compensating them, an idea bandied about for several years, said Caldwell. Several other states already do it.

But clearly the state’s sheriffs didn’t like the idea unless it came with money to cover the inmates room and board.

In the current scenario, the state is still projected to save a bit of money. They’re closing four small, minimum-security prisons, including the Haywood Correctional Facility, which will cut some costs.

And the state will increase court costs starting this month to cover the cost of housing prisoners.

Statewide, the changes should affect between 5,000 and 6,000 inmates, said Caldwell. It’s hard to really pin down an exact annual number of those that could land in county jails — those with sentences between 90 and 180 days with misdemeanor crimes.

On one day in March when he took a tally, there were 1,700 inmates who fit the bill, and he figures that’s about average.

In Haywood County, there were 14 inmates convicted in 2010 who match the criteria. Jackson County had four, Macon County had eight and Swain County only two for that year.

So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for smaller, rural counties.

But in Wake County, the state’s most populous, there were 296 convictions in 2010 that would have to be housed locally somewhere under the new rules. And portioning those out could be a boon to empty jails.

Eventually, Caldwell sees this program giving counties an incentive to build bigger jails than they may need, theoretically paid for by prisoners other places didn’t want.

Currently, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association is figuring out how many beds there are in facilities around the state, then contracts will be signed before the program goes into effect at the beginning of next year.

Haywood prison gets death sentence: Community laments loss of inmate work crews

Western North Carolina is losing one of its strongest municipal work forces. And a quick look at their record of projects shows that, in towns and counties around the region, they will be sorely missed.

But this loss isn’t exactly the result of layoffs or furloughs. It’s what will happen when the Haywood Correctional Center closes at the end of this year, and its 125 inmates — who serve as a nearly free labor force for the region — are shipped off to larger prisons in the state system.

It’s been a good ride while it lasted for communities benefiting from the prison work crews.

They’ve painted public pools in Haywood and Jackson counties, pulled weeds from the dam at the Waynesville watershed, assembled playgrounds, painted schools, done landscaping on municipal buildings, cleaned up the grounds of state parks, assembled school equipment. One crew built an entire boat ramp by hand on Lake Fontana. They shoveled snow from sidewalks in downtown Waynesville one particularly rough winter.

“At one time we had three crews,” said Donnie Watkins, the prison’s superintendent.

SEE ALSO: A new life in the cards for Haywood's prison?

And that’s just in the community work program, which offered up inmates to local governments, schools and the like to add free manpower to a whole range of projects.

Inmates also staff litter pickup crews, and assist the N.C. Department of Transportation with projects on almost a daily basis. This week inmates labored along the roadsides in a Maggie Valley subdivision, repairing old landslide damage.

In the transportation department program alone, inmates logged 122,656 hours between 2006 and the end of July. Worked out to minimum wage, that’s $889,256 of work that’s been almost donated to communities from the state line all the way to Buncombe County. The cost of inmate labor is 70 cents per person each day. It’s a service, said Watkins, that will be noticeable when it’s gone.

The state-run prison is being shuttered, along with three other small-scale minimum security prisons, to save money. It’s cheaper for the state to run fewer big prisons rather than more smaller ones. But the cost to the local community will be immense.

The community work program has been in business for eight-and-a-half years, and tracking the exact projects inmates have helped with over that time is a little difficult. There are so many that to go through the whole record would probably be a box or two of papers to sift through.

But sitting around in the prison’s front office one Thursday afternoon, a gathered group of officers are able to rattle off a laundry list of maintenance and beautification projects, from the offbeat to the mundane.

Haywood Correctional has, until now, supplied more man hours for community projects than any other prison in the region by far. Part of that is because it’s a minimum security place, so by definition, a good deal more of the inmates are eligible to work in the community with less intense supervision.

Plus, say the officers, they’re pretty hard workers. A common problem with the program was recipients of the inmates’ help overestimating how long a project would take. Sometimes, said one officer, you’d take out an eight-man crew and they’d finish the work scheduled for a week in one day.

That kind of efficiency — and the unbeatable price — will be noticeable in its absence in places like Waynesville.

“There’s no question it will definitely leave a dent in the town’s workforce,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “We’ve depended on the inmate crews. I‘ve been here 17 years, and we’ve used work crews to do that work continually almost during that time.”

The place where their efforts will be most noticeably missed, said Galloway, is in litter pickup. Crews pick up trash all over the city, and there won’t be anyone left to do it when they’re gone.

“We certainly don’t have the money to hire people,” said Galloway. “We’ve been dropping jobs the last several years, most of which have been in public works, so we don’t have the work force to do that kind of work. Unless it’s volunteers, it’s probably not going to get done unless we put different priorities in our work and not do something else to pick up litter.”

The litter pickup is where prison staff foresee the most impact, too. As one officer noted, the counties will be filthy come January 1. The litter crews pick up trash from Canton to Murphy, and local dumpsters are quite a bit fuller thanks to their efforts.

On one recent trip down the stretch of N.C. 107 that runs in front of Western Carolina University, inmate crews collected 181 bags of trash, and it had only been a few weeks since their last pass over the road.


Loss of jobs

Of course it’s not just local governments that are losing in the prison’s closure. The entire prison workforce — 42 employees — will be out of a job when the place is shut down by the end of the year.

They can apply for other jobs within the N.C. Department of Corrections, but most would have to leave the area if offered a position, and there just aren’t that many jobs to give in the department, said Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.

“There is a reduction in force process that we will try to place people in other agencies, but we’re kind of limited in that part of the state,” said Acree.

The inmates themselves will be scattered across the rest of the state’s prisons, housed wherever there’s a bed in the right kind of facility.

That, said Watkins, is likely to put a strain on a lot of the local inmates who have family visitors or are allowed out occasionally on home leave.

SEE ALSO: State prisons, county jails play musical chairs with inmates

“They’ll be housed from Buncombe County, across the state, still in minimum custody,” said Watkins. “They’ll be housed much further east, which will put a burden on family members. You’re going to have a lot of families out here who are not going to be able to see their family members who are incarcerated.”

For the facility itself, its fate still stands undecided.

The state has the option to repurpose it, or it could be declared surplus property and sold or leased to someone else.

That’s an option that Haywood County commissioners are keeping their eye on, considering the possibility of leasing it from the state should the department of corrections offer it up.

If the state decides it doesn’t need the prison, said Acree, priority will be given to anyone who wants to continue using the place for criminal justice purposes.

And until the doors officially close in coming months, inmates will still go out on work detail nearly every day, giving the region a few more months of clean streets before the workforce is gone for good.

Prison to remain open, but future not rosy

By Julia Merchant • Correspondent

The minimum-security Hazelwood Prison in Waynesville is the only correctional facility of its kind to survive state budget cuts. It is now the sole remaining old-style prison left in North Carolina.

“It’s a certain thing — it will remain open,” said Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who fought a tough battle on behalf of the prison. It’s a fight Western North Carolina legislators are accustomed to. The facility has appeared on the chopping block numerous times over the years, only to be rescued by the efforts of Snow and other regional representatives.

“It’s the effectiveness of our delegation,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who also fought, once again, to save the prison. “We worked hard, pinned it down early, and stayed with it the whole way.”

Hazelwood will be the state’s last example of a small dormitory-style brick prison built in the 1920s. The only other two like it, in Gates and Union counties, were slated for closure as well.

“They’re older prisons, and that was one of the reasons they were targeted for closure,” said Snow. “Some of them cost a lot to maintain.”

Like Hazelwood, Gates and Union also have their staunch supporters. The prisons provide a means of employment for locals, and inmates perform work detail in the community and provide local churches with an outlet for volunteering. But for one reason or another, Gates and Union were both felled by budget cuts. So why did Hazelwood survive?

“I think it’s the location of the prison, and the fact that it’s the only prison in far Western North Carolina,” said Snow. “It’s almost 90 miles from Murphy to Haywood County, so if they closed it down, the next closest minimum security prison would be somewhere in McDowell County.”

If inmates are kept further away, their loved ones are less likely to visit — which can detract from an inmate’s rehabiliation.

“It’s very important to the families of Western North Carolina, whose family members are incarcerated, that they be closer to home,” said Queen.

If Hazelwood were to close, it might be harder to place its employees in equally well-paying jobs close to home — another reason the prison may have fared better than the others.

“These other prisons that we closed, we had facilities close at hand that employees could be transferred to and keep jobs,” said Snow. “Here, we would have had a harder time transferring employees to equal jobs. That was one of the things that was very important — we would have lost about 50 positions.”

Local government officials have advocated on behalf of the prison, largely due to the amount of work detail the inmates provide to the surrounding community. The inmates pick up trash on the highways and performance maintenance to schools.

“It’s very important for the services that these minimum security prisoners deliver, helping governments do chores and tasks around Western North Carolina,” said Queen.

Snow said he received letters from county commissioners and school board members telling him how important the prison was to them. The Haywood County Commissioners even passed a resolution asking, “Who’s going to keep the highways clean if the Haywood Correctional Center closes?”

Snow also said the prison may also have survived cuts because of its rather good condition.

“It’s in good shape, considering its age,” Snow said.

But Queen stresses that saving the prison this time around is simply buying time and is only a temporary solution. Eventaully, the facility will have to be replaced.

“It’s very important for us in Haywood County and WNC to keep this minimum security unit open until we can upgrade it, but there’s no question it needs to be modernized and replaced with a new facility,” Queen said.

Queen said he plans to make a bigger push toward that goal.

“I want to work with the county, so we can be prepared to replace it with a modern facility as soon as we can find money for capital improvements,” he said.

Queen said a new facility can’t be put off much longer.

“This year we didn’t build any, but we almost lost our prison,” he said. “We definitely need to realize that we had our warning, and now we need to prepare and make other plans.”

Loss of Hazelwood prison likely just a matter of time

Local legislators are preparing to fight yet another attempt by the state to close the only minimum security prison west of Asheville.

The 125-bed Haywood Correctional Facility in Waynesville, commonly referred to as the Hazelwood prison, has landed on a list of potential closures as the N.C. Department of Corrections looks for ways to scale back its budget.

It’s not the first time the state has considered shutting the Hazelwood prison. The aging facility was built in the 1930s and now sits between a neighborhood and commercial district.

“The prison has been recommended a couple of times for possible closure, but some of us in Western North Carolina that represent Haywood County have been able to stand at the front door and put it off,” said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. “This is not something new — it’s been discussed.”

Haire is hopeful that legislators will be able to save the Hazelwood prison this year, as they have in the past. But he says that the fight is already becoming more difficult, and that legislators can’t hold off forever.

“I think that down the road at some point it’s going to be a greater issue, and it is now, about keeping it open,” he said. “One of these days it’s going down.”

Haire said it won’t matter how powerful the coalition of legislators from the region are or how hard they fight.

Legislators have always been able to save the prison, arguing that it benefits the area. The facility provides jobs for 44 people. Inmate labor has fueled hundreds of public works projects around the region — everything from picking up roadside litter to construction projects at public schools and government buildings.

“It’s a very important facility not only for serving the minimum security needs of inmates, but they do a lot of work across Western North Carolina,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.

Haire estimated that inmate labor saves western counties, “thousands in construction projects.”

Additionally, the prison is conveniently located for families to visit their loved ones behind bars.

“It gives folks hope for their family to be able to visit them and hopefully help to transition them back to everyday life,” Haire said.

Two other minimum security lockups are on the chopping block, too. The three facilities, among the smallest in the state, have been grouped together as one item that could save the state $3.4 million per year if all were shut down.

That begs the question of just where inmates would go.

“Where would these prisoners be sent?” asked Haire. “I don’t know. That’s where we’re really short on beds at the time, is minimum security.”

The state’s prison population recently spiked for the first time in many years, Haire said. State projections show that starting in the next fiscal year, North Carolina will have nowhere to put an estimated 2,300 inmates. California plans to deal with a similar problem of too few beds and not enough money by releasing prisoners.

The rise in prisoners in N.C. is linked to the state’s sentencing system, which leaves judges with little discretion and clogs prisons.

“The prison population is going up much faster under structured sentencing, where judges are tied into this sentencing grid,” Haire said.


Other options

Queen said the Hazelwood prison is actually on another list — “not for closure, but for being reconstructed as a new and modern minimum security unit serving Western North Carolina.”

“WNC needs a new minimum security unit that is modern, a little larger, and that is both economical in size and an economical new building,” said Queen.

Queen said he and other local legislators have continued to fight to keep the Hazelwood prison open until the facility is updated or a new one is built nearby.

“We’ve been fighting to keep it open until we can get it rebuilt,” he said.

Haire thinks Western North Carolinians should be thinking about whether, and where, they’d want another minimum security facility located. The issue of having a new prison in the region came up several years ago, but no site was ever picked.

“There was no site identified, but a lot of people became very concerned because they thought it was going to be in their community,” Haire said.

Haire says residents need to weigh the benefits of having a prison in considering whether a new one should be built in the region. For many, it may be a case of “Not in my backyard,” but if the prison comes, so would added benefits of jobs and public works labor, Haire says.

“I think we’re going to start having to look to the future, and I think the future is now,” he said.

Queen doesn’t anticipate a large amount of opposition to a facility that houses only low-risk inmates.

“The minimum security unit doesn’t have that level of pushback,” he said.

Queen said an updated facility was initially on his list of priorities for this legislative session, but the economy will likely put a hold on plans.

“The economy has changed priorities,” he said. “Though it doesn’t necessarily change the demand for prison beds in our state. It may actually exacerbate the demand.”

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