By Jordan Wilkie, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Haywood County plans to begin testing the geological soundness of a possible new jail site, the next step in a yearslong project to add more than 100 new detention beds that will cost $16 million upfront and much more over the coming decades because of the way counties pay off loans.
Some advocates want that money spent instead on expanding access to treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, providing housing for the homeless and funding licensed social workers in each of the county’s 15 schools.
Jesse-lee Dunlap, who taught overdose prevention classes in the jail and is the local grassroots organizer for Down Home NC opposing the jail construction, said those kinds of interventions could significantly decrease the jail population.
“We have a list of community needs that, if we addressed them, would prevent people from ending up in jail in the first place,” Dunlap said. “And those needs we can address at a much cheaper cost than jail.”
According to a 2016 study by Albert Kopak, a criminology professor at Western Carolina University, 85.5% of people in the jail had at least one substance use disorder.
The concerns of Dunlap and other opponents of building a new jail are not falling on deaf ears.
Haywood County officials and Sheriff Greg Christopher have worked with public health workers and community activists for years to establish syringe exchange sites to allow for safer drug use and overdose prevention.
Christopher brought educators like Dunlap to the jail and worked to help people find housing after they are released from jail. He plans to start a medically assisted treatment program for people with drug addictions. Christopher will not seek reelection next year, and a new sheriff can continue, expand or completely halt those efforts.
Doing different math
County officials and grassroots groups are devising different solutions using different math to solve one question: How many jail beds does Haywood County need?
The county points to its year-over-year increases in daily jail population and new rules from the state that say jails cannot house more people than the facility’s original design capacity. As the county grows, the county will jail more people and therefore need an expanded facility.
Dunlap disagrees and points to data showing the rate of people being jailed in Haywood County is greater than the rate of population growth.
“We’re doing something wrong,” Dunlap said. “Right there, you know something’s not right.”
In many ways, County Manager Bryant Morehead agrees with the opponents of the jail, he said. His interest as county manager is to provide better living conditions for Haywood residents, which includes interventions that would keep the jail population down.
For example, he wants to provide more treatment for people in jail and to start a pretrial release program that would allow detainees who are not a public safety risk out of jail.
“Our hope is that we can help individuals overcome obstacles in their lives, which in turn will improve their quality of life and reduce recidivism,” Morehead said.
Still, these kinds of interventions are not effective enough to prevent the county from needing a new jail, he said.
Morehead and Christopher point to an analysis done by Moseley Architects, an architecture and engineering firm that has built jails across the state.
In Moseley’s assessment, which the company presented to county commissioners on Nov. 2, the county will need more than 250 detention beds by 2045. The preliminary design Moseley showed the county would add 145 new beds, essentially doubling the jail’s current capacity.
Moseley is also one of two architecture firms under consideration for a contract to fully design and help build the jail.
The assessment by Moseley is not unusual. Jasmine Heiss, who studies rural jail construction for the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit organization that opposes mass incarceration, said she has never seen a jail needs assessment from a jail construction company that does not suggest adding space.
Often, counties build larger jails with the intention of housing people from other jurisdictions as a way to bring revenue back into the county. For now, Haywood County has “no formal plans to hold detainees from other counties,” Morehead wrote to Carolina Public Press.
According to information from Morehead, Moseley did similar needs assessments for 21 counties and two regional jails in North Carolina. In 10 of those cases, Moseley was also selected to build the expansion or new jail.
Two representatives from Moseley sat on the planning committee that helped update the state rules on jail standards and conditions that the county is now pointing to as a reason it needs more jail space.
Moseley did not respond to questions for this article.
Haywood’s county commissioners have not yet decided whether they will build the jail and likely will not address the issue until June, Morehead said.
The county needs to complete the geotechnical assessment to make sure it can build on the open land next to the current jail. Then, the county will hear presentations from architectural firms and make its selection. Meanwhile, the county will work with the local government coalition to finance the project.
All of that will take another 12-14 months, Morehead said.
For now, grassroots organizers like Dunlap are aiming to talk to 1,000 people in Haywood. About one-third of the way through, people seem overwhelmingly opposed to the jail construction, Dunlap said. The organizers hope to present their findings to the county commissioners in May and dissuade them from moving forward with the project.
“If we can’t just kill it completely, we do want them to maybe put it on the ballot,” Dunlap said.