Whoever first said, “The more the merrier,” was probably talking about parties rather than county jails, but the Guilford County jail in downtown Greensboro recently had an interesting time – if not a merry one – when it got a large influx of inmates from another county courtesy of Hurricane Florence.
The Guilford County jail in Greensboro, which has had a great deal of empty space ever since it opened in the summer of 2012, put many of those vacant cells to good use recently when Guilford County took 143 inmates from Lenoir County due to flooding during the hurricane.
Many jails across North Carolina remain at capacity or overcrowded, so when jail space was needed for inmates in hard hit counties, naturally Guilford County was one of those contacted. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes serves on the State Emergency Response Committee of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, and, as the massive storm approached, state officials asked Barnes if Guilford County would be in a position to take on extra inmates.
“I told them if we had no damage we could take some,” Barnes said.
He said he then got the call saying that Lenoir County needed somewhere to keep their inmates due to the storm. That county, not far from the coast, with Kinston as the county seat, was one of the hardest hit places in the state.
“We agreed to take up to 150 inmates and we took 143,” Barnes said.
As the waters rose around the jail in Lenoir County, the sheriff’s department there sent three buses – two with male inmates and one with female inmates – to Guilford County. That department also sent guards to help watch the inmates during their stay here.
Guilford County Sheriff’s Department staff at the large 1,032-bed jail in Greensboro opened up unused pods to house the inmates. The guards from Lenoir County slept in cells like the inmates did – though they no doubt had an easier time entering and exiting the cells than those inmates.
During the stay, Guilford County fed the inmates and provided medical care for them. Guilford County taxpayers shouldn’t be out any money due to the helping hand from the Sheriff’s Department: Federal grant money is expected to cover the cost.
Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Major J.L. Rollins, who oversees the jail, said the inmates from Lenoir County were well behaved for the most part while held in Guilford County – with the exception of doing some back talking to the guards.
Rollins also said that, though Lenoir County sent guards, the visit still required extra guards from Guilford County.
“They sent eight officers, but obviously they aren’t used to our jail procedures,” he said.
Rollins also said that Guilford County tried to make the visiting guards as comfortable as possible – given that they were in a holding area that would normally be used for inmates. Guilford County provided those guards with a coffee maker, a mini-fridge, some Domino’s pizza and other amenities.
All of the Lenoir County inmates have now been returned to that county.
In addition to helping out with jail space for Lenoir County, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department sent 10 officers to Sampson County, a county just east of Fayetteville and one that also saw massive flooding. Those deputies were sent to relieve officers who had been working for days and nights straight.
Barnes said his department sent officers, food, sleeping bags and other needed supplies.
“They asked us for 24 deputies and I said, ‘No, I can give you 10,’” Barnes said.
Barnes added that he always tries to have his department help out other departments when possible. The sheriff said he likes to keep in mind the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In recent years, Barnes has been putting some of the county’s unused jail space to work. The jail rents out space to the federal government and generally keeps a good number of federal inmates in the facility. In a good year the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department pulls in about $1 million in revenue for holding those inmates.
In addition to the benefit of having extra space, the jail in Greensboro is also relatively new and is just down the street from a federal courthouse, things that helps make it attractive to the feds.