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Bladen bonanza: Filling empty jail with federal inmates

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By Jordan Wilkie
Carolina Public Press

Bladen County officials estimate the county is making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, on top of creating nine full-time jobs and offsetting payments toward its new jail, by housing detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service.

In February, one of those federal detainees reached out to Carolina Public Press, concerned about the jail’s conditions and response to an outbreak of COVID-19. Later that week, data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the outbreak.

After being asked about the jail’s actions for infectious disease response and control, the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release on Feb. 15 describing the jail’s quarantine and symptom screening process for new intakes to the jail. It also included a paragraph about the federal detention program generating $1,965,000 in gross revenue for the county to date.

Even during the pandemic, when the county has detained fewer locals, the jail has steadily increased the number of federal detainees it holds. Out of the jail’s average daily population of 120 people detained, 80 of those are from the federal government, according to James McVicker, Bladen County’s sheriff.

“When we first started this thing, we were kind of reluctant, and we weren’t too sure it would work out,” McVicker said.

The program began in December 2019 with 40-50 federal detainees, according to McVicker. Everything went smoothly, so officials increased the number of beds to 80. Now, they want to add another 10 federal beds, McVicker said.

“It brings revenue into the county, and that’s why we’re doing this,” he said.

This strategy of housing federal detainees to bring money into the county has helped fuel a rural jail boom, both in jail construction and incarceration, according to researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit that advocates for lower incarceration rates in jails and prisons.

The math that counties use to justify these detention contracts with the federal government can be shortsighted or based on bad calculations, according to Jasmine Heiss, who heads the Vera Institute’s In Our Backyards project, which studies how incarceration affects America’s rural communities.

“I think this idea that there is sort of a free lunch that comes from detaining people on behalf of other agencies is actually a pretty precarious financial bet for many communities, particularly resource-poor communities who could potentially invest the millions or sometimes tens of millions of dollars that are spent on bigger jails in other economic opportunities or other economic drivers for the people who live there,” Heiss said.

Bladen is the 19th-most economically distressed county in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce and one of 42 counties holding a combined total of 1,788 federal detainees, according to Dave Oney in the Marshal Service’s Office of Public Affairs.

So far this year, the Marshals Service has paid North Carolina counties $31.89 million for jail holds. The agency projects to pay another $33 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Building extra big

In 2017, Bladen County finished building its new jail at a projected cost of $19 million. Ultimately, the county will pay much more than that, to the tune of $947,000 installments every year for the next 40 years, according to Lisa Coleman, finance officer for Bladen County. The jail also houses the county’s 911 facility.

The county had to build a new facility, McVicker said, due to a judge’s order. The old jail was decrepit, he said, and housed about 70 people. For a while, Bladen had to pay to send people to jail in other counties because its own jail was over capacity.

The new jail has a capacity of 230 beds, and Bladen no longer has to pay “inmate rent” to other counties.

Building big was part of the plan for the long-term use of the jail and to house detainees from other jurisdictions, according to Greg Martin, Bladen county manager, who mentioned that the old jail had been in use for 50 years.

“When this jail was designed, it was designed for the long term as well and with the hope that we would be able to lease space to other counties or the state misdemeanant program,” Martin said. “Fortunately, now we’ve been able to participate in the federal inmate program.”

This is a common phenomenon, Heiss said. As conditions in jails decrease, lawsuits and other pressure are applied to the counties to build new jails, which often decide to build bigger.

Counties rarely consider the fact that jail populations might go down, Heiss said. The companies that are often contracted to project the long-term jail needs of a county are also the ones building the jail, she said.

This was the case in Bladen County, where the Mosley Architecture firm both projected “ever-increasing future overcrowding” and was contracted to design the jail. Officials projected a $1.36 million cost for “Architect/Engineering Fees.”

Heiss said every analysis she has ever seen from these companies, which often use “really shoddy math or poor projections,” concludes that the new jail needs to be bigger.

The problem with these projections, Heiss said, is that they don’t consider possible changes in policy that could shrink the jail population.

One example of unexpected policy changes is the one that counties all over the country have put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic so that fewer people are detained in close quarters, where the virus can spread easily.

Bladen’s current average daily jail population of local detainees is roughly half of the old jail’s capacity, at 35 people detained for the county, even as it separately decides to bring in more and more federal detainees.

The jail has reported only seven COVID-19 cases among staff and eight among people detained in the jail since the pandemic began. CPP received calls from one federal detainee who reported that he and others in his unit tested positive for the virus.

McVicker said he doesn’t think 230 is too high for long-term projections for jail size.

“Long term, we will probably have this jail for many, many years, and nobody knows what the future may bring,” McVicker said.

He later added, “And I hope we never fill it up.”

Doing the math

Having the federal detainees doesn’t necessarily increase the cost of running the jail, McVicker said, because all the different units would be in use even with a lower population in order to keep certain groups away from others.

The federal detainees, he said, are housed separately from people arrested locally. The county hired eight sheriff’s deputies and a maintenance worker and bought two transport vans to account for the federal detainees, though it also paid for those expenses out of the federal revenue.

That there are currently twice as many federal detainees as local ones improves the county’s moneymaking ratio. The more beds the county fills with detainees from other jurisdictions, the more money the county makes. The fewer beds it fills with people from its own jurisdiction, the less money it spends out of its own pockets.

The risk, according to Heiss, is that federal detention beds are not guaranteed. The Marshals Service has jail bed contracts with 74 counties in North Carolina, but only 42 of those are holding federal detainees, according to Oney.

The number of federal detainees, which went up under Donald Trump’s administration, is likely to go down under President Joe Biden, according to his policy statements.

Changes in policy that are outside the county’s control can change how many people are sent to the county and therefore how much money it can recoup on its jail beds.

Bladen County has already experienced this in a small way with the statewide misdemeanant program, where the state pays counties to hold people convicted of serious misdemeanors.

Before the pandemic started, the county housed about 20 people for the state. Now, that’s down to five.

The county used to have people held on these charges pick up litter on the side of the road, which helped defer costs of cleanup, but now the county does not have enough people in the program to send out.

But both of those programs, along with kickbacks the county earns when people detained in the jail make phone calls or buy food, create small amounts of revenue compared to the federal detention program, the Bladen officials said.

Coleman estimates the county will make a net gain of about 24% of the approximately $2 million on gross revenue Bladen has earned from the Marshals Service. In the next month, county commissioners will meet to decide what to spend that money on, Martin said.

The county’s calculation of profit includes paying back only a portion of the cost of the jail out of the federal revenue. If the number of detainees from the Marshals Service drops, the county will have to come up with that money from elsewhere and may have to lay off sheriff’s deputies who were hired to guard and transport the federal detainees.

“I don’t think that it is either morally right to tie people’s futures to incarceration who don’t necessarily realize that that’s what their community is doing,” Heiss said.

“But it also is fundamentally unfair to say, ‘You know, we’re going to tell our taxpayers that the future is bright, that they have nothing to worry about.’ And in reality, we have no way of controlling these external forces.”

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