July 19, 2012As Robert Burns pointed out, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry – and so could, perhaps, the plans of a certain county sheriff.
Now that the giant new 1,032-bed jail in downtown Greensboro is ready to house the inmates currently held in what can now safely be called "the old jail," Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes is eager to move the inmates into the new jail, officially named the Guilford County Detention Center, and begin a major renovation of the old jail, so that he can – as he's planned for the last two years – fix the old jail up and start using it to house federal inmates at around $100 a day.
However, at a Tuesday, July 10 Guilford County Jail Construction Advisory Committee meeting, it became clear there was some resistance to Barnes' plan – even though no one had ever questioned the plan before.
The discussion at the July 10 meeting brought up new possibilities for the old jail that ranged from putting the renovation project on hold, to tearing the old jail down, to converting it into some other type of useable building space.
About two years ago, Barnes suggested that, once the new jail was built, the county could use the old jail to house federal inmates, thereby generating revenue. Barnes said the county could charge federal agencies for housing those inmates and use that money to pay down the debt on the new jail.
That's what Barnes and Dallas-based construction company Balfour Beatty had planned all along: to move ahead with the renovations – one large part of that project is the installation of a sprinkler system – so that the aging facility would be ready for federal inmates.
However, at the committee meeting, Barnes appeared a little stunned that he was now hearing competing ideas about the future of the old county jail in Greensboro.
The meeting was held in the Blue Room in the Old Guilford County Court House, and the attendees, along with Barnes, were Commissioners Kirk Perkins, Paul Gibson and Bill Bencini, Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox, Facilities Director Fred Jones, Property Management Director Sandy Woodard, Sheriff's Department Major Debbie Montgomery, NC Superior Court Judge Stuart Albright and Balfour Beatty's Jimmy Anderson – the project manager overseeing the construction of the new jail.
Gibson has been the chairman of the committee since it was created about four years ago, after county voters approved a $115 million bond referendum in May 2008 to build the new jail and renovate the old jail.
At the meeting, after Barnes began going item by item through the planned renovations, Perkins suggested the county might want to look at other options as well. Perkins said there was no sense in proceeding too quickly to determine the use of the old jail.
He said the new jail had just been completed, and it made sense, Perkins said, to wait for the dust to settle, and examine the county's inmate situation for a while with the new jail in operation, before moving forward with any plans related to the old jail.
"Why do anything?" Perkins asked at the meeting.
Barnes, who had just begun explaining the planned renovations, was taken aback by Perkins' question. The sheriff reiterated that, for some time, the accepted plan had been for Guilford County to take on federal inmates at a charge, and use that revenue to help pay the cost of the new jail.
According to Barnes, it costs the county about $59 a day to house an inmate, and federal authorities will pay $102 a day per federal inmate – though Barnes added that the rate varies somewhat depending on the location and condition of the facility.
Perkins, who worked for much of his life as a prison guard and as a prison guard supervisor, said the supposed revenue that the sheriff was touting might look good on paper, but, he added, it was one of those things that, given the real world difficulty of running jails, might not be as easy as it looked.
"We're not a business," Perkins said of Guilford County government. "Do we even need to go forward with this? Are we really going to make any money?"
Barnes stressed that, given an average profit of $43 per inmate per day, even if the county only kept 100 or 200 inmates in the old jail, it would create a nice revenue stream.
Housing 200 inmates at that rate, for instance, would mean about $8,600 in revenue for the county every day, which comes to over $3.1 million a year.
Barnes also stressed to the committee members that this had been the plan for years.
"Initially, again, that was the plan," Barnes said. "I understand we're not a profit center."
Though Barnes always stresses that the main purpose of his department is to keep the public safe, he also prides himself on the ability of the Sheriff's Department to generate revenue wherever possible in order to save money for the taxpayers.
For instance, inmates at the Guilford County Prison Farm near Gibsonville grow food to feed county inmates as well as to sell to the public, and the Prison Farm also has a greenhouse and store that sells a wide-range of items – from lawn furniture to flowers. The Prison Farm now even has a beekeeping operation that creates "Jailhouse Honey," and the inmates grow grapes used to make "Jailhouse Jelly" for sale to the public.
And, now, Barnes would like to try to generate some revenue by taking in federal inmates. However, at the July 10 meeting, Perkins and other commissioners had some tough questions about Barnes' proposition. For instance, if the county proceeds with the renovation, would the county face excessive liability issues? Also, how much money would the county spend each year running the facility?
At the meeting, Gibson said that it would help if the commissioners had some numbers to study. For instance, Gibson said, it would be helpful to know the hard facts about what kind of supply of federal inmates the federal agencies could promise, the number of new county detention officers that would be required and the cost of hiring them as well as how much in additional cost it would take to operate the jail as a holding facility.
Perkins said the board had seen no estimates as to how many guards Barnes expected to hire.
"Our biggest cost is always personnel," he said.
Bencini said that, just based on what he's observed and read, there seemed to be a solid demand for county jail space for federal inmates. Bencini called it a "competitive environment," which could benefit Guilford County.
Another big concern expressed was about the liability that comes with holding inmates.
"Every inmate you house is a potential lawsuit," Perkins told Barnes.
Barnes said that, if the county were just talking about, say, housing inmates from other counties, which bring much lower rates – usually around $60 a day – then "it's not worth the effort or the liability."
However, Barnes added, once you're talking about housing federal inmates at over $100 a day, there's a good opportunity to make some real profit.
Barnes added that Guilford County had an ace in the hole when it came to attracting federal inmates.
"The reason it's attractive is because of that federal courthouse across the street," Barnes said, referring to the L. Richardson Preyer Court House, which recently gained national attention by being home to the John Edwards trial.
Barnes said that, since a lot of the federal inmates held would have cases that would be adjudicated in that courthouse, just one block from the old jail, the federal agencies saved money by not having to transport prisoners long distances to and from trials. Barnes added that the feds benefited logistically in other ways as well when those inmates were housed in downtown Greensboro.
Barnes also said that the extensive renovations to the old jail would make it more attractive as a holding facility to the federal authorities.
"The feds pay based on their inspection of the facility," Barnes said.
The sheriff said that, if the renovations are completed, and it's a clean, safe and well-functioning jail, federal agencies were more likely to choose it as a location to house inmates.
Anderson, speaking on behalf of Balfour Beatty, said his company had already made a lot of arrangements and had purchased some materials for the planned renovation of the old jail.
Barnes said that some of the work of the renovation process had already been completed – some of the projects, he said, had been undertaken with the inmates still in the jail.
Barnes also said that, when it comes to jails, it's very difficult to do anything with those buildings other than hold inmates.
"It's tough to convert a jail into any other form," Barnes said.
Perkins said he was familiar with an old jail in Maryland, built in the 1890s, that had in recent years been put to a good use as a point of interest and commerce for that community.
"It's upscale restaurants and boutiques," Perkins said, adding that it looked like a nice addition to the area – though he didn't go as far as to suggest that Guilford County turn the old jail into Ye Olde Jail Shoppes and Eateries.
Barnes told Perkins there was a lot of differences between a jail built in the 1890s and one built in the modern era.
"Regulations have changed quite a bit," Barnes said.
The old county jail in downtown Greensboro opened in 1975.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne wasn't at the Jail Construction Advisory Committee meeting, but there were several times during the meeting when the commissioners said they wished Payne were there. For instance, they had questions about how much, given the county's contract with Balfour Beatty, Guilford County was already committed to for the renovation project. Payne could have also addressed some of the liability issues the county officials had.
The estimate for renovating the new jail has fluctuated over the years and the scope of the project has varied as well. However, the current estimate is that it would cost just over $3 million to get everything done.
The major part of the renovation would be the installation of a sprinkler system, which will cost about $1 million, but other recommendations from the Sheriff's Department for the aging jail include the replacement of security windows, the installation of intercoms in cells and dayrooms, and for repainting much of the interior and pressure washing the exterior. It also includes structural enhancements, an overhaul of the plumbing and electrical systems in the jail, and about $290,000 in architectural fees.
The $3 million estimate also calls for new carpet in some staff areas as well as new laundry room appliances and kitchen equipment. It also includes more security cameras both inside and outside the building.
Montgomery of the Sheriff's Department said this week that the building badly needed the enhancements such as the security windows and the other requests. She said that, given the age of the building, much of it was in a dilapidated state. She also said the exterior needed washing.
"It has never been pressure washed since it was built," Montgomery said.
According to Montgomery, the county signed a contract with Balfour Beatty three years ago to install the sprinkler system in the old jail, and she said that the other work was what was now being requested by the Sheriff's Department.
Perkins said the board needs to be certain of the future use of the old jail before proceeding with such a major project.
"I'd hate to spend $3 million on something that we'll tear down," Perkins said.
Gibson said the board should try to get answers to some of its questions – about the cost of housing federal inmates, federal demand for jail space, the amount of money already committed to the old jail, and more details on the liability issues – and then discuss the matter further.
Perkins said this week that another option he wanted to explore had occurred to him. He said that he wanted to consider the possibility of the county leasing the old jail to the feds and letting them run it.
"At least that way we would know exactly what we would be making," Perkins said. "The county is notorious for coming up with projections and then those not holding true."