Growing pains

Buncombe County officials say their search for additional jail space is driven by a growing inmate population.

And one of the biggest factors leading to an increasing jail population is the rising number of women offenders, notes County Planner Cynthia Barcklow.

“That’s the biggest problem right now,” maintains Barcklow.

Of the 356 beds currently available to house inmates in Buncombe County’s system, only 46 are available for women. The county’s proposal for the South Lexington Avenue site would nearly double the county’s capacity to house women, adding another 40 beds.

Currently, all the women inmates are housed in the maximum-security Detention Center (commonly known as the jail). The Jail Annex, which is currently minimum security, is equipped to handle only men.

According to Barcklow’s research, an increase in women prisoners appears to be part of a national trend.

“It seems that with women breaking a lot of barriers in the workforce, they’re being treated equally in the crimes they’re committing,” she notes.

If the county’s plans go through, it will better be able to group similar inmates by keeping the Detention Center as maximum security, converting the Jail Annex to medium security, and adding the South Lexington Avenue site as a minimum-security jail.

Problems arise, Barcklow reveals, when overcrowding forces inmates together who shouldn’t be mixed — such as housing those who are assaultive or mentally ill with the general inmate population.

Another major factor in the increasing jail population is the growing number of parole, probation and pretrial release violations, says Barcklow.

In addition, the 1994 Structured Sentencing Act (which dictates that defendants serve more of their sentences) also has put pressure on the jail system, she points out.

The number of inmates in Buncombe County’s system can fluctuate between the week and the weekend, since judges often sentence certain low-level offenders to weekend time only. But even if judges sentenced more people to serve during the week, the county still would have problems accommodating women and the overall increase in population without a new facility, Barcklow says.

And if the county is able to add the 120 beds at the South Lexington Avenue site, the same problem will crop up again by 2009, when projected jail-population increases will lead to periodic overcrowding, Barcklow warns.

The county also has to keep an eye on state trends, according to Barcklow. The N.C. Sentencing and Policy Commission projects that there will be more state prisoners than beds this year. By 2004, the state will be short 2,225 beds; by 2008, it will be short almost 6,000 beds. Local jails, she notes, may be asked to house inmates who otherwise would go into the state prison system.

— T.R.

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