Mar. 10—At last week's Monday board meeting, Haywood County commissioners said they have been receiving calls on the proposed jail — something that isn't unusual when a large capital project is on the drawing board.
Veteran commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who is also an attorney, said even when a project has more perceived benefits to the general public than a jail, there are still plenty of calls.
"The idea is out there that we are building this to jail more people," he said, adding that after being in the courts for 26 years he has never seen a judge go out of the way to jail someone.
The reason for the jail expansion is mostly due to new state regulations about segregating different types of inmates and the fact the satellite jail is seldom used.
When the existing law enforcement center was built in 2004-05, the adjacent single-level jail, now referred to as the jail annex or the satellite jail, was licensed to house 40 inmates. It was grandfathered in, meaning it didn't have to meet new guidelines, and has been opened sporadically for use in a pinch.
Plans are in the works to spend $16.5 million to boost the jail capacity by 145.
Kirkpatrick and other commissioners acknowledged public concerns being voiced that those with mental health needs should get treatment instead of a jail sentence. Board members agreed, however, that expanding the jail doesn't mean other funds can't be designated to address the substance abuse and other needs of those incarcerated.
Kirkpatrick said treatment programs work about 20% of the time, meaning county funds spent on this aren't doing any good unless individuals are ready to make a life change.
At least with a jail, we have something we can see and touch; we've spent the money on a capital improvement and it's not just lost. I just don't see another direction we can go in," he said.
County Manager Bryant Morehead said a needs assessment indicated the planned expansion will serve the county for the next 25 years. New units will only be brought on line as they are needed, he said. Once all 147 new units are needed, it will increase the jail staff by 20, he said.
Commissioner Tommy Long said Haywood has the third lowest jail capacity per capita in the 14 western counties with 17.37 beds per 10,000 population. Compare that to Swain County with 76 beds per 10,000 population.
He cited an article in The Mountaineer where a man was arrested twice in a single day and was out again that evening raping a woman to illustrate the need for jailing an individual.
"Jail is not always a bad thing," he said, praising the faith-based programs in use in the jail. "It gives them a chance to dry out and for the faith-based community to reach them."
He said none of the commissioners are taking the decision to build a new jail lightly.
Commissioner Brandon Rogers agreed. He compared a stint in jail to being grounded as a teenager in that it is something that "gets your attention and gives you time to think."
"It's not that we have a choice," he said. "We are actually going to try and do both. There's a special place in the drawing where we can supply mental health and help some of our folks. Some of these folks need to be in jail."
Commissioner Jennifer Best challenged those who are opposed to the jail to come forth with solutions.
"Law and order is something we need," she said, citing the so-called catch and release programs where people can reoffend even before their first court appearance.
She agreed there is a need to look at mental health issues and find solid solutions and ideas that work.
Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley said the jail vs. mental health issue is not an "either/or situation"
Mental health has traditionally been a state responsibility in North Carolina, but is one the state has abdicated, he said, adding the county probably will be forced to put in more funding.