The Statue of Liberty welcomes the poor and the huddled masses at no cost, but right now the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department is welcoming state prisoners and federal inmates for a price.

A big new jail, proximity to a federal courthouse and a new program that helps inmates reenter society have all made the Guilford County jail in Greensboro a very attractive place for others to store their inmates, and the Sheriff’s Department has built a nice side business with a solid revenue stream that Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said this week amounts to about $1.5 million a year in additional revenue.

Guilford County possesses a rare luxury among North Carolina counties – plenty of surplus jail space – and the Sheriff’s Department is using that asset as the foundation of the program. Barnes said there are expenses but added that about two-thirds of the money coming in is profit. That means the county is clearing roughly $1 million a year housing inmates for others.

On Wednesday, June 6, Guilford County was holding 909 inmates in the two county jails, and, of those, 45 were federal prisoners and 16 were state system inmates – people who had been convicted of crimes but were being held in a Guilford County jail due to overcrowding in state prisons. The county is earning $73 a day for each federal inmate and $44.50 for each state inmate, which means that, on June 6, the Sheriff’s Department pulled in $3,285 from the feds and $712 from the state. Barnes said the current level of federal and state inmates in the county’s jails is fairly typical of what Guilford County sees year round.

Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Major J.L. Rollins, who oversees the county’s two jails in Greensboro and High Point, said the practice of holding inmates for federal agencies and for the state is possible due to the large new jail in Greensboro that opened in 2012. The jail has beds for 1,032 inmates and it never comes close to capacity.

“It was so crowded in the old jail that we couldn’t do that,” Rollins said.

Rollins added that most of the federal inmates are more mature and well behaved than typical county inmates, so those federal inmates can often help out in the kitchen or laundry room or provide other services in the jail.

One limiting factor in the past has been having enough detention officers to handle extra inmates, but over the last year Guilford County has put a great of effort in to attracting new jail guards.

“We are having much more success after ramping up our efforts,” Rollins said of hiring and retaining detention officers.

Barnes said that, since the jail has to operate 24/7 anyway for the county’s inmates, it makes financial sense to take on the additional detainees.

“The jail has a fixed cost, so adding 50 or so more doesn’t add a lot,” the sheriff said. “The same lights have to be on.”

According to Barnes, it cost about $2.50 a day to feed each inmate but other than that there’s not much added cost for holding federal and state inmates. He said Guilford County clears about $50 a day on each federal inmate. State inmates don’t bring in as much per day but keeping them is still a profitable practice.

The fact that Guilford County is centrally located in North Carolina and the jail in Greensboro is a block away from a federal courthouse helps make it more attractive as a place for others to hold their inmates. In 2017, Guilford County began a new program that brings community organizations together to help inmates reenter society and live a straight and narrow life. That program also makes Guilford County more attractive as a holding county for inmates in the custody of others.

Barnes said the fact that the Greensboro jail is relatively new, with modern amenities, makes it more appealing to federal agencies looking for inmate accommodations. The feds look for places that are clean and under capacity and those that are conveniently located.

Barnes said federal agencies pay Guilford County more per inmate than most other places but not as much as they pay Mecklenburg County.

“Mecklenburg gets $126 a day per inmate,” Barnes said.

He added that occasionally Guilford County will hold inmates from other counties in addition to the extra state and federal inmates the county takes in. The jail in another county may be overcrowded, damaged by fire or under repair for some other reason. He also said that, if a police officer or sheriff’s officer is under arrest, he or she typically needs to be held in a jail in a different county than the one where they serve.

While the practice of holding inmates for others is profitable, there are some risks involved. Rollins said that, from time to time, the county can get burned on a major expense if an inmate requires significant medical care while being held.

“The biggest thing that drives up the cost is medical cost,” Rollins said.

If an inmate is HIV-positive or needs specialized care for other issues, the holding county can find itself on the losing end financially when it comes to that particular inmate.