by Ed Lyon
Haywood County, North Carolina is a conservative, rural political entity located in a mountainous region in the state’s west. Trump won his 2020 reelection bid there by 30 points with staunch republican Madison Cawthorn being sent to Congress as their federal representative. Heavily traditional values, law enforcement and the military are avidly supported.
In such an area it would be thought a new jail would be a shoo-in. Not so much today though. There is a new, low-key, but effective activist group operating there called Down Home North Carolina (DHNC).
DHNC’s mission is not to spark heavy controversy, but to empower through education the state’s poor, working class citizens who are “narrated to constantly through the media,” stated DHNC’s Todd Zimmer, a phenomenon he calls the “Fox effect,” which can encourage people to vote against their own material interests.
In September 2020 the state announced a rule requiring separate carceral housing areas for prisoners based upon their offenses and security needs. Canton First Baptist Church’s pastor Court Green was quick to state, “Looking at the sheer numbers, we have to have a new jail.” In agreement, Sheriff Gregory Christopher began to stump for a larger jail, with a $16.5 million price tag.
In opposition, DHNC undertook deep canvassing efforts among the citizenry. Unlike polling, deep canvassing is designed to evoke people’ s empathy―winning and changing hearts and minds.
Beginning in early April 2021, canvasser Dan Bayer brought to people’s attention that mentally ill persons were one of the main reasons for the burgeoning numbers at the jail. In fact, 40 percent of America’s jail and prison populations have some form of mental illness, with 50 percent of that number taking prescribed psychotropic drugs [See PLN, Feb. 2019, p. 22-24].
Budgets for the state’s mental health programs have been steadily decreased over the last 10 years by the General Assembly. A whopping $52 million vanished from those budgets during 2016 and 2020 alone.
These facts underscored DHNC’s presentation to a stoic assembly of county commissioners in a February 2021 meeting. DHNC presented an “alternate budget” that included licensed social workers at middle and high schools, reopening a shuttered behavioral health urgent care clinic with the establishment of outpatient and residential treatment options. There was even an allocation for building affordable housing.
The bottom line for those programs, designed to reduce the jail population and obviate the need for a new jail is around $3.4 million. This was contrasted to the initial $16.5 million cost of building the jail, and a Vera Institute study showing that the lifetime cost of the jail, including staffing, maintenance and other costs, would increase to an astronomical $165 million.
DHNC’s point was that incarceration actually does more harm than good. The much smaller investment in social services would do a far superior job of responding to the citizens’ needs than a much more expensive new jail ever could.
Unfortunately, an old bond with yet-unused funds for the purpose of jail construction already exists. That money could not be used for any other purpose, like a reduced amount for social services which would remove the need for a new jail. Thus, the commissioners appear to be in support of the new jail.
DHNC may not win this fight. The organization has been able to educate many Haywood County citizens on an issue they needed to learn about. Zimmer stated, “The fact that this conversation is happening in Haywood County is an example of what wouldn’t be happening if we weren’t there. Poor and working people’s voices weren’t part of this conversation and now they are.”
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