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How A Jail Expansion In Haywood County Is Exposing Gaps In Mental Health Treatment

Activists have been gathering recently at the Haywood County Courthouse to oppose the proposed expansion of the county jail
Warren LeMay
Wikimedia Commons
Activists have been gathering recently at the Haywood County Courthouse to oppose the proposed expansion of the county jail

Last month, more than 20 residents of Haywood County filed into the local courthouse in Waynesville to send a message to the Board of Commissioners

"We’re not here because its fun. We’re here because we’re tired, and the resources are dwindling and we need your help," Haywood County resident Kasey Valentine-Steffen said.

The group’s dissension targeted a multimillion dollar project that is raising alarms for many residents. Last fall, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office proposed expanding its jail at a cost of $16.5 million, but many in the area want to see that kind of money go to something else.

"What do we want to see for this county in the next 10 years?" said Jesse-Lee Dunlap in an interview with WUNC. Dunlap is an organizer for the group Down Home North Carolina, which opposes the expansion. "By investing this much money into jail expansion, y'all are painting a not-good picture of where we're headed."

For months, Dunlap has been spearheading opposition against the jail expansion. Instead of more jail cells, they say the county needs more treatment for substance use disorder.

"I worked in the jail doing jail-based overdose prevention training, and saw that there are a lot of unmet needs of basic resources that landed people in jail. And a lot of our jail population has substance abuse disorder," Dunlap said. "And that is usually why they end up in jail. We also do not have much access to mental health care in this area."

Earlier this year, Down Home members presented county commissioners with an alternative budget, what they called a “People’s Budget.” Their estimates put it around $3.4 million. It supports several programs intended to address some of the causes of incarceration.

"You're going to have to establish infrastructure, and you're going to have to stop criminalizing substance use disorder as a medical condition," Dunlap said. "Get people what they need to live, and leave the substance use disorder up to the doctor and the person that is struggling with it, not cops."

Authorities in Haywood County say their hands are tied and the jail expansion has to happen one way or another. New state regulations mandate that jails operate according to their capacity.

The Haywood County jail population is growing, there isn’t enough space, and the new rules require all jails in North Carolina to create a classification system for those currently incarcerated, said Haywood County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes.

"Which in essence, basically classifies an inmate and their housing based upon the level of crime that they have committed, based upon the aggressiveness, based upon the violence used, based upon the level of felony, or whatever the case may be," Haynes said. "Our facility was not designed and built for that 15 to 16 years ago, because that was not a standard."

Haynes said that does not mean the new facility has to be a funnel for those struggling with mental health.

"Every jail in most counties throughout the state of North Carolina is your largest mental health facility that there is," Haynes said. "And we have stepped into that role because we have been pushed into that role. We've been able to do the best we can with the resources available."

But North Carolina lawmakers determine the state's budget, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services oversees mental and behavioral health care, not local law enforcement.

"In 31 years that I've been in law enforcement, only the last 10 years or so has devolved - and not evolved - into the situation we're in now," Haynes said. "And unfortunately, based upon the criminal justice system, and the actions of people and the lack of resources that are available, based upon the privatization of the mental health system in the state of North Carolina, we have been painted into a corner."

Jesse-Lee Dunlap of Down Home North Carolina said even if the jail expansion happens, the conversation has changed locally.

"Taking care of people at what is actually a lower cost than a jail... if we make that the thing, then jails will be obsolete at some point," Dunlap said.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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