The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department has tunnel vision.

Specifically, this week Sheriff’s Department officials kept their sights trained on the tunnel that runs from the Guilford County jail to the Guilford County Courthouse in downtown Greensboro: They wanted to make absolutely certain that the construction of a new administrative headquarters for the department did not interfere with the operation of that tunnel.

The county is now spending about $400,000 more on, and taking longer to complete, the new Law Enforcement Center [LEC] project in order to keep the tunnel open for the transport of inmates to and from court while construction takes place.

At a Thursday, March 21 work session – at which the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend about $12 million to construct a new headquarters for the department – one big question the commissioners faced was whether to save money by shutting down the tunnel during the construction process.  The project involves the demolition of the old jail and the tunnel connects to that jail.

At the March 21 work session, Sheriff’s Department Captain Daryl Loftis spoke on the importance of keeping the tunnel open.  He said it’s “integral to the efficient, secure operation for staff and inmates.”

Loftis said that officers transporting groups of inmates use the tunnel for multiple trips three times a day – in the morning, at lunchtime and late in the afternoon after court.  According to Loftis, in 2016, there were 6,488 inmates taken through the tunnel.

He said video arraignment can’t be used in many court cases and he added that at times the equipment doesn’t work properly.

“Guess what happens when video arraignment goes down?” he said. “Everybody has to make an appearance.”

He also said the only real alternative is to use vans to transport inmates to the courthouse – and he added that that wasn’t a good option.

“That, for us, is simply not feasible,” he said.

Loftis said inmates get “antsy” when they are out in the open and being taken back to the jail.  That’s especially true for those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, he added.   He said that, without the use of the tunnel, there were risks of escape attempts and ambushes.  He said the job would also require more officers if they had to transport inmates by van, and there would need to be special accommodations for some as inmates, such as those in wheelchairs.

The Board of Commissioners spent the extra money and allowed for the extra time, but Commissioner Jeff Phillips said after the meeting that he feels certain the tunnel will have to be shut down at least for a little while.

“In my mind, even best case scenario, there’s no way around tunnel closure for some period of time during and after the demolition of the old LEC [Law Enforcement Center], but the consultant is suggesting more limited downtime with the approach we approved.”

He said Guilford County is saving money by not choosing to renovate the old jail, as was once planned.

“In the end, the cost is $6 million to $8 million less than retrofitting the old facility,” Phillips said.  “It’s not a perfect science, but in my view we definitely came to the best conclusion given all the crazy unusual variables with this facility.”