Thursday, August 12, 2010

Old jail to become for-profit detention center

by Yasmine Regester

Carolina Peacemaker

Originally posted 8/11/2010

Plans are underway to turn the existing Guilford County jail in Greensboro into a for-profit detention center.

FaithAction International House, an organization that advocates for immigrant and refugee rights, is voicing concerns that law enforcement will be looking for people to detain in order to recoup some of the new jail costs. “I think it’s a really bad policy for us to be trying to raise money by incarcerating people. It creates a conflict of interest for law enforcement because it causes them to focus on capturing people and getting them in jail because there is a profit to be made, rather than on protecting public safety. It goes against every value that professional law enforcement should be upholding,” said Rev. Mark Sills, executive director of FaithAction International House.

He added, “This is a huge incentive to look for people to incarcerate, it just won’t be undocumented immigrants, they (law enforcement) will be looking for every excuse possible to fill up those beds.” Sills also accused Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes of stating publicly that the old jail will house federal inmates and immigrant detainees.

Barnes said, “Immigrant detainees are federal inmates. The state doesn’t deport people, the federal government does. We will house anybody they (federal government) want to put in there. That will be their call.”

Barnes says he is looking for ways to pay for the new jail and has found the solution in the old jail. He has proposed to use the existing Guilford County jail in Greensboro to house federal inmates. According to Barnes, this strategy will shift the tax burden of operating the new jail from the county to the federal government. “Basically what we’re looking to do is house federal prisoners which we are paid for by the federal government,” said Barnes. A $115 bond referendum approved in November 2008 for a new county jail has been put towards new jail construction costs and renovation costs to the old jail.

Once construction on the new jail is complete, renovations on the old building will begin. “The old building needs to be refurbished; once that is completed it will be eligible to receive inmates such as Mecklenburg and Alamance County does. Jails all across the state keep federal prisoners but we can’t because we are overcrowded. We can end up making enough money to take care of the debt service on the new jail, which will make it a lot easier on citizens because it is less they will have to pay,” said Barnes. Debt service consists of day to day operation costs, which Barnes says is about $10 million a year, and repayment for the new jail.

Barnes noted there are no private companies involved and the jail will be run by the sheriff’s department.

According to Barnes, Mecklenburg County gets a little more than $100 a day to house federal inmates. “I think Mecklenburg County gets about $100 a day per inmate, so I’m hoping somewhere in that ballpark. We’re talking about money that local taxpayers won’t have to pay towards the repayment of building the new jail.”

Since the Middle District of North Carolina’s federal court is located in Greensboro, Barnes believes having a local federal prison will help eliminate heavy costs and hassle of transporting inmates from other cities to Greensboro.

“We used to keep federal inmates and it generated money to go towards a revenue source to help the county pay for the operation of their jails.” Barnes noted that there could be legal complications from turning a profit on housing federal inmates in the new jail because bond money is being used to pay for construction. Therefore, the new jail will not be used as a federal prison but will free up space in the existing Guilford County jail which is already paid for.

Gerald Chapman, immigration attorney at Chapman Law Firm in Greensboro believes that a detention center in Greensboro will increase fear within the community, particularly the immigrant community. “The fear is already there. The immigrant community already feels that law enforcement has got it in for them. The fact that we will have a federal detention facility here in Guilford County is more geography than anything. The real issue is the administration’s emphasis on enforcement and appropriate strategies for dealing with the undocumented population. The fact that we will have a detention facility that will hold people in federal immigration detention temporarily, I think its part of a real bad idea.”

Chapman also noted that if government wants to secure the borders a more comprehensive worker visa program needs to be created that will make the legal system work for both the worker and the employer. “With a worker visa program in place, you won’t need to have this kind of enforcement. We are spending so much money on this, it is absolutely astounding,” said Chapman.

According to the county’s law enforcement officials, Guilford County’s jail has long ago reached capacity, exceeding the 397 limit with a total inmate population currently at 507. The new completed jail will have seven floors, housing a combination of individual cells, dormitory cells, and four man cells, as well as recreation centers, a medical and dental center. There will also be 45 beds designated for substance abuse inmates. Renovations on the old jail will include a new sprinkler system, and improvements to the building to aid in the supervision of inmates.

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