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‘Raising Jails’ investigates costs of incarceration in NC

Illustration by Mariano Santillan
Courtesy Carolina Public Press

In the investigative series “Raising Jails,” Carolina Public Press reporter Jordan Wilkie examines the process for building and expanding jails in North Carolina.

Over the last 20 years, counties across the state have spent approximately $1.5 billion on building and maintaining their jails. But the decision to build or expand a facility is one that sometimes does not fully weigh the long-term costs to the county government and the community.

WUNC’s Charlie Shelton-Ormon interviewed Wilkie about the series and how counties are grappling with incarceration within jails.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

In your series, you report on what goes into a county’s decision to build or expand a jail. It involves something called a “needs assessment.” Can you tell me more about this and who weighs in on this decision?

When a county is looking at building a jail, the first thing they do is they ask, ‘Do we actually need this space?’ And there are a lot of stakeholders in a county that say you do or you don't need to build and oftentimes the sheriff, who runs the jail, says, ‘We need a new jail. Our jail is full. Our jail’s old. We need to build a new facility.’ It's a natural reaction.

"The skill set that it requires to project the number of beds that a county is going to need for a jail is not necessarily the same skill set that a company is going to need to build that jail."

Ultimately, what tends to happen is a county gets a contract with a company and says, ‘Tell us, what is our bed projection for the next 20, 30, 40 years?’ That company tends to be an architectural firm. And that architecture firm can then turn around and make a bid to build the jail. So the skill set that it requires to project the number of beds that a county is going to need for a jail is not necessarily the same skill set that a company is going to need to build that jail. And that's really the point that a lot of advocates made for me. You know, they're saying, first of all, a company that stands to profit from a decision shouldn't be involved in making the decision. And second of all, if an architecture firm is helping the county make decisions, it should be within the wheelhouse of an architecture firm, and doing criminal justice sociological projections is not necessarily in their wheelhouse.

You report that many jails are overcrowded. Part of the motivation for detaining people from other counties or jurisdictions is that's revenue that the county receives that they can then use to offset some of the construction costs.

Yeah. [The money] can be put to anything and construction cost is a main one. So I talked to a number of counties and said, ‘Are you planning to build a jail? And if so, are you planning to use money from the US Marshals, which has a lot of people in county jails and are using money from the statewide misdemeanor confinement program, which is the state program to help people convicted of misdemeanors in jails, as a way to offset your construction costs.’ And a number of counties said, ‘Yes.’ The issue here is that I didn't find any counties — even Orange County, which did, I think, the most thorough assessment and decision-making process for building a new jail than any other county that I saw — and even they didn't do a really clear calculation of how much revenue they're generating versus how much they're spending on housing people from other jurisdictions. And there just really isn't a good calculation that I found anywhere in North Carolina, where people are saying, ‘All right, well, we are able to adequately calculate how much it really truly costs to run a jail, per, you know, number of people that we have in the jail. And this is the money that we're getting out of it.’

You look at Surry County in the northwestern part of the state and how they're approaching the prevalence of issues like substance use disorder there...

That county is pretty interesting for just a whole number of reasons. They're both building a jail and starting from scratch, in the last couple of years, a program that does substance use disorder intervention work. And their purview is just super broad. So they're starting transportation services in the county, and they are doing intervention. So when people have overdoses there and the ER or law enforcement responds, those people are then connected to the substance use disorder intervention specialists. And the county is having to figure out how to pay for both of these things at the same time.

"What is the balance of funding between what we're putting in in terms of criminal justice versus public health?"

And there's a tension here, because if their intervention program is super successful, then a lot of the issues that are driving people to be incarcerated will be reduced and therefore fewer people will be incarcerated, and therefore this new jail will have less people in it. Everyone, jail administrators, sherriffs, county commissioners across the state, they always say, ‘Well, you know, we may need a new jail, but we hope we never fill it.’ [But] not everyone is taking the steps to not fill it. The question then is what is the balance of funding between what we're putting in in terms of criminal justice versus public health? Jamie Edwards, who's the data manager for [Surry] County is really working with this program to see if their interventions are effective. He pointed out that for the last 40 years, we've known based on models in other countries like Canada, that you have to have a proportional response of punishment and access to services. And the United States, more than any other country in the world based on how many people we lock up in our own country, we really, really, really lean on punishment. And now the question is, and it's a question people have been asking for a long time: how do you fund and how do you decide to invest in other things like public health?

And Surry County, they're able to do that on local grants, some investment of their general funds, and they're really looking for this settlement money coming from the state suing with other states, the companies that distributed opioids. So they've got millions coming into the state, it's going to be distributed around the counties, and Surry County is using their allocation of that fund to pay for this intervention program to help reduce the number of people who are being arrested for substance use disorders.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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