PILOT MOUNTAIN — Surry County can either spend $25 million or so on a new jail or spend $650,000 annually — with that cost to rise each year — to house local inmates.
That was the general feel of Friday afternoon’s discussion before the Surry County Board of Commissioners.
The county board held its annual retreat at JOLO Winery and Vineyards outside of Pilot Mountain.
After a morning spent discussing issues such as tax collections, fund balance, debt service, and landfill and EMS needs, the board spent much of the afternoon hearing from Sheriff Jimmy Combs, two of his officers and Don Mitchell, county facilities director.
Mitchell said he spoke to architects in 2016 about an expansion of the sheriff’s office and jail.
This project has also been mentioned this year as part of the rearranging of county services. With the purchase and upcoming renovation of the Lowes Foods/Just Save building at Dobson Plaza — as well as the renovation of the historic courthouse — the county can spread out more and make room for the law enforcement expansion.
The architect firm with whom Mitchell spoke came back with plans for a new jail at a cost of $24 million and an expansion of the sheriff’s office at $13 million.
However, Mitchell said the firm didn’t follow his request exactly so the plans aren’t what he wanted. He said the current jail was expanded previously, and those newer jail cells should stay and not be wiped out in the rebuild.
Right now, according to the department’s stats, the jail is woefully short on needed space at 125 beds — 35 for the female population and 90 for males.
The newer cells make up 54 beds of those beds, but the plans the architect offered wiped out all cells and built 236. Mitchell said he just doesn’t feel like that would be adequate to the county’s needs.
Lt. Randy Shelton, the detention center commander, said that at the very least it would be a good idea to keep the 54 newer spaces and add 236 for a total of 290.
The commissioners questions such a drastic increase, and if the county might eventually need even more. Shelton said the county could add 350 beds and still find a way to fill it close to capacity.
“Like that baseball movie, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” he said.
The board asked how the county could need such a facility.
When the detention center can’t hold all the inmates, the overflow has to be shipped to another county’s jail — at a daily cost to Surry County, explained the officers.
“We had 50 out of county the other day,” Combs said of all the detainees shipped out.
That’s about average, added Shelton. The county is averaging about 170 inmates, with a capacity of 125, which is 45 beds less. On average, the county has 40 women and 130 men to detain.
Another area for concern is the state-operated Pretrial Release Service, said Shelton.
Such programs, according to its website, are aimed at preventing jail overcrowding by allowing some defendants to remain at home, with daily monitoring until trial.
Pete Gillespie runs the program in Surry County and does a fine job monitoring 90 to 100 defendants at a time, Shelton said.
However, there are a couple of problems, the jail commander noted.
One, Pete has been doing this a long time — if he were to retire or change jobs, it is unlikely anyone would take on his workload. The jail could expect about half those numbers to remain in detention.
Two, in 2011 the General Assembly tried to pass a bill to do away with the program. Local Sen. Don East was even one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 756, which stalled in a House committee.
When working on the budget each year, this idea comes back up, Shelton pointed out. If that happens eventually, then the entire 90 to 100 people in the program would be added to the 170 already needing housing.
Shelton said Surry County is already part of the State Misdemeanant Confinement Program to take in inmates from other jurisdictions.
Shelton said the county joined the program in 2012, designating three female and seven male beds. The state funding for this program did well enough that it made sense to take in 10 state prisoners even if it meant shipping 10 local criminals elsewhere to be held.
Those 10 beds earned $120,650 in the past fiscal year. “
If the county added some extra cells to the plans, then the program could be expanded from 10 beds to 25 or 30. At full capacity, that could bring in an additional $365,000 to $438,000 a year at the current reimbursement ($40 a day) which likely will go up.
As for the expense to keep all these prisoners, Shelton explained that the cost per person goes down with higher volume. Expenses and overhead are spread out more.
Commissioner Van Tucker asked about housing federal prisoners for agencies such as the U.S. marshals, ATF and ICE.
That doesn’t seem like a viable revenue stream, Shelton believed. The closest federal court is Grensboro, so prisoners likely would be kept closer to there.
Not only that, but in order to house these inmates, the jail must meet strict federal guidelines and pass an annual inspection that can cost about $10,000, which would be hard to earn back, Shelton explained. At a rate of $55 a night, the county would need 182 nights a year just to break even on the inspection fee.
Responding to a question by Commissioner Larry Phillips about utilizing the old prison on Prison Camp Road, Shelton said the building there was gutted years ago and would cost millions to make it usable.
County Manager Chris Knopf said it’s state property anyway, so not available to the county.
If the county doesn’t act on a new jail, the outlook isn’t bright for housing prisoners elsewhere.
Shelton said Stokes County doesn’t have any room. Wilkes County has stopped taking his inmates because of an arrangement to take on Stokes’ overflow.
When Yadkin isn’t full, there are only about five beds at most.
Ashe County represent three hours of lost man-hours to drive there and back, plus the changeover time.
And, Shelton noted, Ashe has been put on notice that it isn’t in compliance with current rules and regulations. If Ashe doesn’t get in compliance, the state could stop the jail from accepting any other county’s overflow until the problems are fixed.
The Alexander County Detention Center in Taylorsville would be the next option.
Right now, the county is spending $657,000 to house prisoners elsewhere. If the Pretrial Release Service gets killed by the state, that number could triple to nearly $2 million a year.
Not to mention the greatly increased time deputies would spend out of county to transport prisoners, as well as the need for vehicles to perform these transfers.
On the other hand, if the county builds a new jail, then it saves that expense and can generate $365,000 or more through the State Misdemeanant Confinement Program beds as well as be overflow help for Stokes and Yadkin counties.
Any prison design will also need to include a new kitchen space to accommodate the extra load.
“It’s all we can do to feed the inmates with the kitchen we have,” said Combs. And the county will need a laundry room.
Shelton would like to see male and female staff locker rooms. Right now, if officers get blood, urine or feces on their skin and clothes, the sheriff’s office has to send them home to shower and change uniforms because there is nowhere to do that on site.
Shelton said he has been writing down ideas for architects, and he suggests a 20-bed pod for the mentally challenged and those who are assaulted by other prisoners.
Looking at the sheriff’s preliminary budget requests, Phillips pointed to a section that is seeking four new jobs in the detention center.
This comes from a state rule change, Shelton said. Regardless of any jail expansion, he will need four more jailers to meet state guidelines that go into effect this December.
There were several incidents elsewhere in the state last year with inmates attacking guards, he said. The state almost broke a dubious record for most jail personnel deaths in a year. In response, jails will now need different safety precautions and more frequent guard rounds through the jail population.
He said he has looked at different ways of making things work with the staff he has, but it isn’t possible.
As the retreat was scheduled simply to gather information, no decisions were made on these issues Friday.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.