A prison of their own design

by Brian Clarey


The standoff between Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and the Guilford County Commission over staffing at the new Guilford County Jail that’s rising in downtown Greensboro — Barnes wants 166 additional corrections officers, but he’ll take 89, and Commission Chairman Skip Alston and his crew are offering 78 — is interesting on so many levels.

We like Sheriff Barnes, and have endorsed him when he’s come up for re-election, though we took a pass on the new jail bond in 2008, largely on philosophical grounds, siding with Alston in the dispute.

Today, Alston’s biggest concerns about staffing the jail are financial, all of a sudden echoing the message of right-wing groups like Conservatives for Guilford County: We can’t afford it.

C4GC — who Barnes, a Republican, sometimes addresses at events — recently compiled a lengthy and detailed presentation on spending reform for the county identifying areas in the budget that could be pared down by almost $23 million, with the biggest cuts coming to schools (almost $15 million) and public health (more than $9 million) but not a single cent coming off of the $60.4 million the county spends on law enforcement.

Surely the group charging itself with watching the county’s pennies can’t allow Barnes the $9.2 million he wants for 166 new officers — the $4.5 million for the 78 officers should be making them hyperventilate. But that would put them on the same side as Alston, who has not shown himself to have much in common with the group.

And then there’s Barnes, a Republican to be sure, though he admitted he never votes straight party line and doesn’t advise others to do so.

“I believe in less government,” he told us when we endorsed him in 2010, “and I’m part libertarian with a little Democratic social value thrown in.”

It is precisely Barnes’ philosophy of corrections that makes us feel he is the right man for the job. On the Guilford County Prison Farm, inmates can learn culinary skills, computer basics or engine repair; have access to AA, anger management programs and financial literacy classes; and can enroll in a re-entry program that Barnes told us “is about getting them acclimated back into society.”

When he starts calling other prisons “warehouses,” he sounds downright progressive, and we have no reason to believe his new jail won’t be considered a model for the form… if he gets what he wants. And we’re inclined to give it to him.

There are other delicious angles to this as well: The beneficiaries of Barnes’ social programs are largely African American, a community that, as representative of majority-minority District 8, is his political charge. And then there’s the 166 new corrections jobs BJ’s plan will create, which are very real jobs, whether you believe the government is capable of creating them or not.

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