Two years ago, suddenly and without much planning, Guilford County closed its Prison Farm in the northeast part of the county and now the county is considering closing the High Point jail in the southwest.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and County Manager Marty Lawing said that option is now on the table due to a severe detention officer shortage that makes it difficult if not impossible for the Sheriff’s Department to staff both jails. Other considerations leading to the possibility of clearing out the High Point jail are that the building’s heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system is in need of repair and there is a lot of available space in the county’s main jail.
The Greensboro jail has room to hold the High Point inmates with plenty of room to spare, and Barnes said the main thing causing him to consider the option is the lack of detention officers.
“I have to do something,” Barnes said of the problem.
According to the sheriff, technology implemented over the last 20 years makes closing the High Point jail less of an issue.
“Visitation would not be a problem because we do video visitation,” Barnes said.
He said he’s aware that closing the jail wouldn’t be very popular with some in High Point.
“The lawyers would be raising hell,” he said. “They are not going to be for it.”
The sheriff said that the longstanding and recalcitrant jail guard shortage has now grown to more than 50 vacant positions. He said the guards often quit as fast as he can hire them.
“I hired five the other day and two left,” he said.
Barnes said that, though there would be increased transportation costs for his department shuttling inmates to the High Point courthouse, there would be savings in other areas if the county only had one jail to run.
At the second day of the 2017 Guilford County Board of Commissioners retreat, on Friday morning, Feb. 10, Lawing informed the Board of Commissioners of his discussions on the matter. Lawing said he had expected Barnes to be at the retreat. However, Barnes didn’t arrive until later in the day.
“Under the public safety focus area, we have jail consolidation,” Lawing told the board.
At the time, the commissioners were talking about a need to consolidate more High Point and Greensboro services, and Lawing said consolidating jail services and moving all or almost all inmates to Greensboro might be a starting point in that regard.
“That would probably, of all the services, be the first opportunity – simply due to staffing issues and some renovations to the HVAC system at the High Point jail.”
The High Point jail is in need of major repair – the HVAC system needs replacing at a cost of just over $1 million, and Lawing said the fact that some inmates will have to be cleared out for those repairs to take place might show the county “what that might look like, on at least a trial basis anyway.”
Regardless of what the board ultimately decides about the fate of the High Point jail, Barnes will have to move a lot of inmates in order for that repair to take place and it will give the department a chance to see how the county and the courts operate under a significant transfer of inmates from High Point to Greensboro. Lawing said that could inform the decision on whether it should be a permanent change.
Regardless of whether or not the county shuts down the High Point jail, it is going to go ahead with the repair of the HVAC system in the jail because that same system also serves the courthouse next to the jail and so would need to repaired for that reason regardless. Also, the county will want to keep the jail functional even if it clears all the inmates out. With no heating and air conditioning, mold and related problems related to high heat and extreme cold will make the building unusable over time. Another reason to keep the building functional is that, even if the county stops housing inmates in that jail, it is likely that some law enforcement functions will remain. For instance, it may be used as a temporary booking facility before inmates can be transferred to Greensboro.
There’s room in the Greensboro jail to hold all county inmates. In 2016, there were on average 570 inmates in the Greensboro jail and 250 in the High Point facility, for a total average daily population of 820. The jail in Greensboro has room for 1,032 inmates.
Lawing said there may be a need to keep some services at the High Point jail.
“It might not be a complete shutdown, but at least moving most of the inmates,” Lawing said.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that some thought needs to be given to High Point justice system workers if the county made that move. He said the county would no doubt need to keep some sort of operations there.
“You could have a nominal representation there,” Phillips said of High Point “You’ve got the court system in play obviously.”
Commissioner Hank Henning, who represents many constituents in High Point, said he believes there would be a number of logistical problems with a total shutdown of the facility. He said that, to his mind, some staff and inmates would have to remain at that jail.
“I don’t see how you could shut it down completely because every time the High Point police arrest somebody they book them in that jail,” Henning said.
The High Point jail, which has bed space for 274 inmates, opened in January 1990. At that time the 123,000-square-foot high-rise building was considered the state’s first “new generation” direct-supervision facility. The construction of that jail was an absolute fiasco, with large cost overruns and delays, and, in the subsequent years, the building has had several issues associated with aging facilities.
In March 2013, two inmates escaped from the facility – which interestingly had no bars on any of the windows. It turns out that steel bars on the windows are a good thing to have on a building full of people who want to get out. Since then, bars have been added to the cell windows.
The Greensboro jail, known as Jail Central, cost just over $92 million and was completed and occupied in 2012. It was built with bond money voters approved in May 2008.
At the retreat, Commissioner Justin Conrad argued adamantly for the county to look at all of its services that are now offered in both cities to see what could be combined. He said many services now provided in both Greensboro and High Point could be moved to one central location.
“We have a challenge because of how we’re set up as a county with two very distinct population areas,” Conrad said during the discussion. “We need to start looking at that. Now I’m not suggesting that we up and move everything to one central location – although it’s not a bad idea. But there are certainly some things we could start moving and going in that direction.”
It is interesting to note that, while Conrad is pushing for Guilford County to move to a model of one location per service, at the same commissioners retreat the board made a move toward opening a new Family Justice Center in High Point. That service, now located in Greensboro, helps victims of domestic violence, and opening another branch in High Point would mean one more service in Guilford County that has two offices.
Henning pointed out that, years ago, Barnes wanted to build the new jail in the middle of the county and have one jail for the entire county.
“We’ve all heard the sheriff talk about a missed opportunity to put the new jail out at Gallimore Dairy Road,” Henning said. “That was a huge disservice. The legal profession won that battle.”
He said there’s no going back now that the jail has been built in downtown Greensboro.
“That ship has sailed,” Henning said. “People say we have duplicate services. You still have to service High Point.”
Guilford County has a big concentration of people in High Point and the surrounding area, and county officials want the county to be able to provide services to that population center without those residents having to drive long distances every time they want to do any county-related business.
He said more county services are online, so that helps reduce the use of county offices such as the Register of Deeds.
County employees may moan and groan about being moved to a single central location, but, in the case of the jail, the good thing about inmates is that if they object too strongly you can shock them into submission.
Barnes is continuing to look into ways to make the detention officer positions in his department more attractive.
He said a loss of benefits over the years in all county jobs has not helped in this cause.
“A job with the county ain’t what it used to be,” the sheriff said.
Barnes said that, in the budget talks for the county budget for fiscal 2016-2017 to be adopted in June, he wants to add three levels of rank and pay to the detention officer position, which would give them more opportunity for advancement in the jail system.
The sheriff said he’s also looking at supplemental pay and better insurance for his officers who work in the jail.
“I’m looking for any way I can,” Barnes said of increasing the appeal of that job.