A few people were surprised that I made a pitch for improvements in the Beaufort County Jail at the August Board of Commissioners meeting. Those who were most surprised were the proponents of building an entirely new jail at an off-site location at a cost of about $25,000,000 (twenty-five million dollars) before COVID, That cost today would be about 50 million dollars. I have never supported that kind of spending along with the huge increase in the number of employees to staff the facility and transport prisoners to the Beaufort County Court House.
The COVID experience did not do anything good for the citizens of the United States. It did radically improve jail management and proved there was no need to increase the size of our jail. The number of prisoners confined by Beaufort County dropped by almost 50 percent down to about 50 people during COVID. Jail population is slowly increasing currently. During August we had 65 prisoners on hand at the end of the month. We have had as many as 120 people inside the jail under judges’ orders at one time. The number we are permitted to have is 87. The jail s a flexible institution.
Many ill-informed, uniformed and purveyors of untruths have represented that conditions are really bad in the jail. None of this is true. The jail is clean, well-managed, with clean linens delivered regularly and meals are provided by an outside contractor. The jail is inspected by the Beaufort County Health Department and the State of North Carolina. The jail has not failed any of these inspections. There is a required annual inspection by the Beaufort County Grand Jury. Many questionable reports have been produced by the Grand Jury because jurors tend to believe what jail personnel have misrepresented to them in the past. They are supposed to inspect the jail and report on what they saw, not what they heard. Hopefully the present sheriff will require employees to tell the truth.
We had ten prisoners who were in jail more than six months awaiting trial or serving a short sentence (less than six months) at the end of August. We had one person, charged with murder, who has been there two years and 7 months waiting for a trial. That person is William Waters who is represented by Attorney L. Robinson. This is far too long. When the “building a new jail” issue came up we had as many as 20 long termers (been there more than 6 months). The District Attorney has worked diligently to reduce the number of long-term prisoners. This has saved Beaufort County a lot of money and made justice swifter and sure.
Beaufort County has another tool for controlling and reducing the jail population. That is the Pre Trial-Release Program or better known as the “ankle bracelet program”. It seems that more people should be on it. Court approval by a judge is required. There are some offenses that common sense tells us should not be eligible for ankle bracelets. Presently there are two people on ankle bracelets. One is under a $200, 000 bond for murder and the other is under a $10,000 bond awaiting trial for a “treat of mass violence at a school.” Maybe some of those charged with lesser criminal charges could be wearing bracelets. I believe part of the punishment could be to be on an ankle bracelet at home with a “family member”. When on ankle bracelets someone other than the taxpayer is providing food, shelter and medical attention.
There are several issues that are desirable in jails but are not always required as the jail reaches it maximum capacity. The best example that is required by law is to keep juvenile prisoners away from adult Women must be segregated from men. Beaufort County does not house juveniles under any circumstances. However, younger adult prisoners who may be first time offenders need to be segregated from hardened criminals. Drunks and those who are under the influence of drugs require special handling. Child molesters have to be segregated. Because of these things we are approaching the need for more jail cells.
Sending the message to criminals that justice is swift and sure in Beaufort County is a crime deterrent. The sale of illegal drugs has been and still is as serious problem in Beaufort County. More jail space will allow us to arrest more drug dealers and hold them longer. As a rule the State Prison System will take those serving time for sentences longer than 6 months. If we had the space, we could sentence more drug dealers to time in the County jail. However, I do not advocate building anything outside the present footprint of the basement of the courthouse.
Jails and prisons are not supposed to be pleasant comfortable places. Those who have spent time in both county jails and the State prisons tell me they prefer the State prison system. State prisons may be more loosely run and permissive.
My proposal has been examined by the jail committee. However, the Jail Committee with the assistance of an architect, has investigated several other jail proposals. All the way from a new jail to grandiose schemes of building a ramp down to the present jail and a building over it to house the sheriff’s department, and the magistrates.
I propose building out the jail footprint (the basement of the Court House) to provide approximately 18 additional cells with improvement in intake facilities, nursing stations and isolation cells. The pre COVID price was about 2 million dollars. We have 5.6 million dollars that the Commissioners put into a special capital fund within the past year with another 30 million dollars in the fund balance (savings). Five Commissioners set up this capital fund to avoid giving a tax decrease. We have the money. I am hoping we can build out the Court House basement for a jail at a cost of 4 million dollars.
At the present time the basement is used for file storage by the Clerk of Court and document storage by the Register of Deeds. The Register of Deeds could use more space for public documents. There is no place to increase space for the Register of Deeds in the Court House. My proposal is to give the Clerk of Court the register of deeds space and build a new fireproof building for the Register of Deeds on the West side of Union Alley behind the building now use for Commissioner meetings and the finance office.
This provides the County with additional jail space to fight drugs, and space for the Register of Deeds without having to borrow money. The alternative is to do nothing and give a tax reduction. However, the present board of Commissioners has refused to give tax reductions for past three years. They are going to spend your money on something. Spend it on something useful and low cost for our citizens.
Maybe we will get enough new Commissioners on the Board during the 2024 elections to give a tax reduction and improve the jail. Maybe.
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