The new jail is on time and under budget, but was it worth it?

by Eric Ginsburg

It`s no accident that visitors and residents alike confuse the new Guilford County Detention Center for a benign commercial development downtown — my roommate asked if I had seen the new apartment complex on Edgeworth Street and Sheriff BJ Barnes said it was specifically designed to look more like a hospital. But the students at Weaver Academy know exactly what the state-of-theart development is. They can see it from their broken desks, out their classroom windows.

For Weaver history teacher Audrey Harris, it’s hard to understand why the new jail received funding due to overcrowding when the school system is overcrowded too, but is continuously facing cuts.

“The kids ask about it all the time,” she said.

“It’s not lost on them what the situation is.”

The situation, as the jail nears completion, is this: The current facilities are horribly overcrowded, with hundreds of inmates sleeping on the floor, but the new jail is only expected to last for 13 years before it, too, is over capacity. Residents are questioning the logic of funding incarceration, especially when budgets are tight and the new jail is a short-term fix, rather than finding alternative solutions.

If everything goes according to plan, the new Guilford County Detention Center will open May 1 as the sheriff’s department moves 680 inmates from the overcrowded county jails located in High Point and Greensboro into the significantly larger facility with 1,032 beds. As of March 1, there were exactly 835 people in the department’s jails, and some will remain in High Point after May 1 because Barnes says he needs more guards to properly staff the new one.

On an average night, a third of the nearly 600 prisoners at the current Greensboro jail are forced to sleep on the floor, laying on mattresses underneath tables in common areas. The building is so over capacity that inmates are sent to the High Point jail, which holds 274 inmates and is also run by the sheriff’s department, to balance out the numbers.

Walking through the building, even for an hour-long tour, is soul crushing. The only way to view the street is from the catwalk, a dingy walkway that only guards can access, though a few cell blocks have windows to the outdoors that can only be looked through by standing on the beds — which is, of course, against the rules.

The new jail was paid for with a $115 million voter-approved bond but is projected to come in more than $15 million under budget thanks to contractors Balfour Beatty and DH Griffin.

The old jail on Sycamore Street in Greensboro, a stone’s throw from the new one, offers Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, though Barnes hopes to expand the programming at the new facility thanks to increased space for classroom areas. The department oversees other programs, including Prodigal Son, which helps set some inmates up with job-training skills and resources to prepare them after they’ve “stayed in my hotel, so to speak,” Barnes said.

The sheriff said the jail ministry program is crucial too and will grow at the new facility.

“I have a feeling if we can get [inmates] at the foot of the cross, we can keep them out of your house and mine,” Barnes said, pausing before adding, “unless they’re invited.”

Prisoners at the jail in Greensboro take turns using the recreation room — a few game tables and a sparse collection of exercise equipment — a maximum of two or three times a week, and some prisoners are only allowed out of their cells an hour a day into a tiny Spartan room that allows for phone calls and a larger area to pace.

The sheriff’s department provides most of the services in the jail, though it contracts with Corizone for medical services and Aramark for food. Approved inmates help with food preparation and laundry.

In one cell block in general population a woman sat reading a palm-sized copy of the Bible, while the other women were all on their beds, a few watching the wall-mounted TV. Women are and will continue to be kept on a separate floor, and constitute between 10 and 15 percent of the jail population.

In the elevator, guards were taking a man for questioning about his black eye.

Critics of the new jail say it’s hard to justify spending so much money on a new jail when there are other pressing needs, namely the quality of the school system and a dearth of economic opportunity.

“We need to look at the expenditure and criminalization… in the context of how human service agencies have been chopped to the bone,” Legal Aid lawyer and Greensboro resident Lewis Pitts said. “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.”

Much of the problem grows out of the economic system, he said, but it could be improved with different rules. North Carolina is one of two states that charges 16-18-year-olds as adults, Pitts said, and the nation has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. All of this needs to change, he said, and nonviolent drug offenses need to be reexamined.

“The economy seems to be set up to serve the interests of 1 percent,” Pitts said. “We are criminalizing poverty. It isn’t that people aren’t smart. It’s that there are impediments.”

When asked how he justified spending so much on a new jail when some would say education and jobs programs or incentives are underfunded, Barnes said, “The next time someone breaks into your house or car, try calling those people.”

The majority of the people in the jail are awaiting trial, though the department must take prisoners with less than six months left on their sentences as well. According to Barnes, 70-75 percent of the prisoners are African American, and that the average education level is 6th grade. Education levels and “societal pressures” such as a lack of available jobs account for the disparities between the inmate population and the general population, Barnes said. While there is no hope for some, he said, there are things that can be done for others.

The department runs a jailhouse farm in the county with 45 inmates, where they can learn landscaping, how to build furniture, farm, pour concrete and even make jelly and honey. Sitting on the front desk of the sheriff’s office are a few jars of “Jailhouse Jelly” made by the inmates. The goal, he said, is to reduce recidivism and help provide job skills.

“I don’t want them back,” Barnes said. “It’s a drain on society, taxpayers and their families. I don’t want to just warehouse them.”

Harris, like Pitts and other youth advocates, pointed to increased criminalization in the school system as the “school-to-prison pipeline” that introduces students to the legal system.

“In large part, the people that are going to fill the jail tend to be the same young people that are siphoned out of the school system, that disproportionately are youth of color, particularly boys,” Harris said. “Infractions that used to be dealt with by the teacher or the administration are now handed over to an officer. The fact that within the school building they are being handled by police officers sets up a different dynamic.”

Barnes said education was important, but defended spending on the jail. He pointed to an example of one inmate who couldn’t get a job because he couldn’t read or write, but somehow had a high school diploma.

“Some people just ain’t going to learn,” Barnes said. “You’ve got to have public safety, and if you don’t have public safety you’d have anarchy.”

However, public safety does not have to be provided by law enforcement and multi-milliondollar jails, said Greensboro Prison Books Collective member Daniel Stainkamp. Not only would community-based alternatives be better, he said, incarceration multiplies societal problems rather than alleviating them.

“People investing in prisons reflects an unwillingness to rehabilitate or attend to the psychological needs of lower-class people and people of color,” Stainkamp said. “Jail perpetuates the cycle of violence. Prisoners are disadvantaged by the system which privileges access to information and the ability to participate in an economy that is only available to people with certain education and connections.”

Prison Books is a relatively new project in Greensboro but is connected to a Chapel Hill collective, which has operated for five years as a prison abolitionist group, sending material to prisoners throughout the region, supporting prisoners in various struggles and working to change attitudes about the need for jails and prisons.

The primary need for a new, larger jail is overcrowding, according to Barnes. The new facility, which is so large the department won’t use entire floors when it opens, was built to last until 2025 before overcrowding becomes a reality again. The jail population has been growing annually by 6 percent, and based on current and projected growth rates, Barnes said, the goal was to build a jail that could last until 2025.

Barnes said the department will be working to make it last even longer.

“The goal was to build something that would last that long and to make it as inexpensively as possible,” he said. “We’re also looking at ways that we can keep people out of jail like electronic monitoring. It’s not in my interest to fill [the beds].”

On March 6, the Greensboro Police Department announced plans to expand the electronicmonitoring program in which people awaiting trial can be released with ankle bracelets, allowing them to be tracked and placed under curfew, which saves money on detention costs.

Sgt. ME Rakes, with the electronic-monitoring unit, said monitoring someone for a month costs as much as keeping them in the jail for two nights. The system enables judges to order youth to attend school and assign curfews to suspects of all ages. Felony cases can take a year, Rakes said, so keeping tabs on people who are released becomes a priority so people don’t re-offend, adding that electronic monitoring helps people because it can prove their innocence for additional crimes too.

“There’s a lot of cost associated when people re-offend when they are on pretrial,” Rakes said. “It’s not meant to get anybody out any sooner, but it’s meant to keep them from re-offending when they do get out.”

Electronic monitoring is not only for people who would otherwise be held in the jail, though it does help decrease overcrowding, Greensboro Police Department spokesperson Susan Danielsen said.

Critics such as Tim Hopkins, a member of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, say expanding the jail capacity instead of funding other priorities perpetuates a larger context of criminalization, and that changes are necessary to help people with criminal records access employment and resources like life insurance. Electronic monitoring and more humane conditions inside the jail are not the improvements Hopkins and others are talking about.

Hopkins said racism in policing and sentencing contributes to a “system of control for whole communities” where segments of the population are offered no future and used as scapegoats. This happens, he said, to the people who are least useful to the capitalist economic system.

“When there are no jobs, people get desperate,” Hopkins said. “When the kids [in Smith Homes] walk outside, the new jail is what they see. It doesn’t have to be this way. Under capitalism it will be this way, but that’s why I’m a revolutionary.”

Hopkins, who is also part of the Revolutionary Communist Party, said he recently spoke with a number of homeless people who were furious that convicted felons were denied access to work, recounting the story of a father who spent eight years in prison who, despite his skill as a welder, cannot find work.

Once the new jail opens and all the inmates are transferred, the department will begin housing up to 350 federal prisoners, a move that Barnes estimates could generate at least $2 million annually if he can secure money to refurbish the facility. The laundry and kitchen at the new site can handle the load from both jails, and an underground tunnel connects both with the courthouse so inmates can be moved without ever taking a breath of fresh air.

Barnes said it was possible some of the federal inmates could be undocumented immigrants held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but that isn’t the aim.

“This isn’t about finding a place to put illegals,” he said. “They already have places for that.”

While filling the old jail with federal prisoners may save the county money, opponents of increased incarceration say the goal now should be to avoid filling up the new jail.

“We’ve got to shift the society so it has space for all,” Pitts said. “It’s almost like we should paint a big question mark on the side of the [new jail] and ask why.”

Greensboro resident and Thomasville police officer Sal Leone, who is running for the NC Senate in District 27, said he has seen the economic causes of crime Pitts described. He has responded to two calls recently in which people attempted to kill themselves because they couldn’t find work.

“It breaks my heart to arrest someone for stealing food, but that’s what we’ve come to,” Leone said. “Crime and the economy go hand in hand.”

Stainkamp said the economic system forces people to generate capital in non-legal ways because there isn’t another option provided.

“The political system of capitalism imposes this ridiculous and unfair system on people and does it as a means to make money off of people who are already marginalized,” he said. In this context, Stainkamp said, funding jails means perpetuating a racist and classist system.

Before the jail opens, it will be inspected to receive a certificate of occupancy later this month; the department will hold a ribbon-cutting event; officers will begin training at the end of this

month; and Barnes will invite the public to participate in a mock lock-up. Designed to test the operating systems of the facility, it will cost $100 a person to be processed and held overnight.

When asked why anyone would want to participate, Barnes said, “It’s a heck of a conversation piece when you go out to dinner.”

The goal is to receive 100 participants, raising $10,000 for the county’s general fund. Each “guest” will be given a card emblazoned with a cartoon of an inmate behind bars reading, “Get out of jail free (not really)” to present to an officer if the experience is too much to handle. Guards won’t be allowed to Tase or pepperspray visitors, but Barnes said there would be some surprises — for the guards too — over the course of the night.

Borrowing from design concepts used on surrounding buildings, including color and material, the jail is supposed to blend in with its urban environment.

“I don’t want the people that go into jail… to be depressed or have any additional problems because of the environment they are in,” Barnes said of the new facility’s design. Equipped with video conferencing so inmates never see visitors face to face except for lawyers, Barnes said the screens help eliminate contraband — though it is impossible to imagine any getting through the thick walls of the current jail’s visitation room — but may also make it easier for children to visit a parent because it doesn’t feel like a jail.

Walking around the exterior of the new jail with Major Deborah Montgomery, who will oversee it and the department’s other jails, it is easy to sense her excitement. Since 1988, she’s been part of a team working on planning and details for the new jail, and as she looks up at the monument, her awe is palpable. Barnes is excited too.

“I think with the opening of this facility the people of Guilford County will have something they can be proud of,” he said. His biggest question now is how soon an accompanying parking lot, which he says is necessary, can be built.

Other residents aren’t eagerly awaiting the jail’s grand opening — in fact Hopkins and the October 22 Coalition are circulating a call for a protest outside of the facility on April 12.

Opponents referenced the school-to-prison pipeline and borrowed language from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which argues the country is experiencing a racially-targeted epidemic of mass incarceration, with jails and prisons filling the social role of segregationist laws from a bygone era.

Over the next decade countless people will drive past the new jail and never recognize what’s behind its walls, and many will forget about the people inside until the jail begins to fill up. Opponents are coalescing around the rallying cry that even if the new jail will soon be operational, it should not be filled, and the pressing economic needs of many must be addressed. In fact, there’s already discussion about mobilizing against a new jail in 2025 and finding alternatives to incarceration now.

If everything goes according to plan, the new Guilford County Detention Center will open May 1 as the sheriff’s department moves 680 inmates from the overcrowded county jails located in High Point and Greensboro into the significantly larger facility with 1,032 beds.