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North Carolina County Conned into Building $100 Million Jail

For evidence that the art of the slick-talking conman is very much alive, witness Guilford County, North Carolina.

The county’s new $100 million, 1,032-bed lockup in downtown Greensboro was built based on spurious claims that the jail population would increase significantly. Voters narrowly approved a bond referendum for the new jail in May 2008 after Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes, along with court officials and county commissioners, touted a report from private consultants that insisted the jail population was growing out of hand.
More than four years later, developers and construction workers have been paid, new guards have been hired and there is now space for 1,703 prisoners among Guilford County’s three detention facilities. But with half the cells in those lockups sitting empty, the new jail stands as a giant brick-and-mortar boondoggle.

“We didn’t need a big jail. We could have added 300 or 400 cells,” said Skip Alston, chairman of Guilford County’s Board of Commissioners. Building the new jail, he contended, was a way for Sheriff Barnes to expand his empire and had nothing to do with the jail population. “B.J. wanted it,” Alston said, and so it was built.

Voters were told by Barnes and other proponents to rely on a report prepared in 2005 by consultants Kimme & Associates. The report predicted that the county’s average daily jail population, which was about 865 in 2005, would exceed 1,000 by 2010 and continue to expand. According to Kimme & Associates, the only option – even with new jail diversion programs and changes in the court system – was to build a new, expensive detention facility.

Alston and County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, however, were suspicious of the report’s findings. Kimme & Associates was hired based on dire jail population predictions provided by Barnes, who had his own internal report from 1999 that called for a larger jail and, thus, increased funding for the Sheriff’s Office.

“Any time you hire a consultant, they’ll do what you want,” said Coleman, who was never in favor of the new jail. “Jails and prisons are a major industry.”

Apparently, not enough voters listened to Coleman’s sage advice, nor did they know that Kimme & Associates isn’t just a consulting firm. The company is also in the business of helping to build jails “as a specialist design consultant to the client or the local architect,” according to the firm’s website. In fact, after they delivered their report to the Board of Commissioners, Kimme & Associates put in a bid – covertly, under the names of two partners – to construct the new facility.

The jail was instead built by contractors Balfour Beatty Construction and D.H. Griffin Construction; anticipated to cost $115 million, it came in under-budget at a bargain price of $100 million. Which is fortunate, as it will cost an estimated $8.5 million per year to operate. The facility opened in 2012.

“It’s a sad day when we are building a 1,000-bed jail because we might need that space in the future,” Coleman said, “[yet] we don’t build schools or anything else like that.”

Guilford County’s average daily jail population is currently around 857 – even less than when Kimme & Associates issued its report in 2005 – which is about half the number of jail beds the county now has available. As of September 2012, the new jail held only 557 prisoners.

“[The population] has gone down,” acknowledged Sheriff’s Major Debbie Montgomery, who oversees operations at the new jail, “but you have to go on your best-educated decision about the prospective outcome.”

With so many empty beds, Coleman and Alston expressed concern that judges will be quick to incarcerate offenders who wouldn’t have been sent to jail in the past. “Anytime you have a new jail, [judges] will do that,” Alston said.

“If you build it, you will fill it,” Coleman added.

To counter such a scenario, in September 2012, Coleman and fellow County Commissioner Paul Gibson assembled a committee of judges, public officials and law enforcement representatives to offer insights on ways to reduce recidivism and make the county’s shrinking jail population even smaller.

“We need to look at the expenditure and criminalization ... in the context of how human service agencies have been chopped to the bone,” observed Legal Aid attorney Lewis Pitts. “I am disgusted that we have a new jail. Let’s be certain that we don’t fill it. Let it be a symbol of the need to restructure society.”

But in case the committee is unsuccessful and the new jail fills up, Guilford County taxpayers can rest assured that Sheriff Barnes will work on another hustle. After all, more prisoners will require more jail guards, which means more money for the Sheriff’s Office.
“The jail population,” Major Montgomery said, perhaps hopefully, “could start climbing again.”


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