Small prison stubbornly survives

The governor wants to close the 94-inmate facility to save money; it just won't go away.

Staff WritersMay 31, 2009 

— Union Correctional Center in Monroe is a relic from the 1930s prison road gangs that leaders in Raleigh keep trying to close.

Gov. Beverly Perdue wants to shut it down. So does the state Department of Correction. So do the efficiency experts, who say the prison is too small and antiquated to be cost-effective.

But the Union Correctional Center has survived the budget knife through a combination of insider political connections, local businesses and governments benefiting from cheap inmate labor, and preachers trying to save souls.

In the process, the Union Correctional Center serves another purpose. It is an example of how complicated and difficult it can be to cut government spending, even as the state faces a budget deficit of epic proportions.

North Carolina is facing a shortfall of as much as $4 billion, nearly 20 percent of the state's current $21.4 billion budget, in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

That deficit has grown since Perdue and the state Senate put together their budget proposals earlier this year, and the state House is now wrestling with where and how to cut spending.

But it won't be easy, as evidenced by the Union Correctional Center, a state lab that studies insects, a worker training program at the state Department of Labor and a program that monitors the Neuse River in Eastern North Carolina.

Perdue, a Democrat, proposed cutting all of those when she made her budget recommendations to the legislature, which must approve a balanced budget for North Carolina. They amounted to a small percentage of the budget deficit, but the Democrats who control the Senate declined to go along. They did not include Perdue's cuts when they approved a budget and sent it to the House.

Ran Coble, a veteran budget watcher, said it can be difficult to kill state programs, because they often have powerful political patrons, would lead to the loss of jobs or because they have well-connected policy advocates.

"Every legislator tends to protect programs in his or her own district," said Coble, executive director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan Raleigh think tank.

Union Correctional Center has had a bull's eye on its back since at least 1993, when an efficiency study recommended its closure. The report said North Carolina had too many small prisons -- four to six times the number of most states. Most of the prisons cited in that report have since been closed.

Perdue recommended that Union and two other small, antiquated prisons, in Haywood and Gates counties, be closed to save $3.4 million. Closing the Union County prison, which houses 94 inmates, would save $1.6 million, according to the Department of Correction.

Even though the state is facing a shortage of prison beds, state officials say inmates from the three prisons could be moved to larger, more efficient prisons where cells can house two inmates instead of one.

Efforts to close prisons, particularly in rural areas, provoke cries about jobs that will be lost. That's not the case in Union County, where only 36 people work at the prison, located in a fast-growing Charlotte suburb.

Prison labor

But the prison is popular in the business community and with local governments because it provides cheap labor. For the past decade, Union Correctional Center has hosted a work release program, where inmates are transferred in to spend the final two years of their sentences learning a trade.

Of the 94 inmates at Union Correctional Center, 65 are in the work release program with private companies, learning to become welders, electricians or other trades. Another eight inmates work for the towns of Monroe and Indian Trail, helping clean parks, mowing, picking up trash and cleaning up after storms.

More than 70 companies in Union County have used inmates during the past decade, said Ron Tarlton, the prison's superintendent. Currently, inmates are working for such companies as chicken processor Pilgrim's Pride, Showmars Restaurant, Hinson Electric, McCarter Electric, Weaver Automobile and United Process Mechanical Piping.

In some instances, companies can use the state prison system like a job placement agency. They order someone with specific skills -- such as a welder -- and a search will be made of the entire prison system. If found, the welder will be transferred to the Union Correctional Center, Tarlton said.

The inmates, who are paid slightly above minimum wage, typically work for a company for two years. The inmates are required to pay the prison $18 a day for their upkeep, pay for transportation costs to the job and, where appropriate, pay restitution. They can send any money that's left to help support their families or spend it in the prison canteen.

"The employers are highly impressed with the program," said Tarlton, who has worked at the prison for 28 years.

"The inmates are dependable and show up for work every day. These guys would rather be out on the job working than behind the fences."

The Union Correctional Center also has a powerful political patron in former state Sen. Aaron Plyler, a road contractor from Monroe. Plyler was one of the leading Democratic barons of the Senate until he retired in 2002.

Although out of office for the past seven years, Plyler, a popular, avuncular figure, mentored and did favors for many of the senators now in leadership positions. As a former appropriations chairman, Plyler knows how to work the process.

And Plyler, who has used inmates to work at his companies, thought it would be a mistake to close the prison.

"I think it would be an unusual move to close it when these people are out there making money for themselves and helping the area," Plyler said. "The city of Monroe has saved hundreds of thousands..."

So Plyler fired off letters to 20 legislative leaders, arguing that the work release program at Union Correctional Center was effective. He got the attention of the decision-makers in Raleigh.

"I don't have as much effect as I had at one time," Plyler, 82, said in a recent interview. "But I have a lot of friends."

Saving souls

For some state leaders, the motivation to keep the prison open had nothing to do with money. It was about an effort to save the souls inside the prison.

The Union County prison has been adopted by many area churches, which have an extensive prison ministry to help inmates redirect their lives.

The Rev. Al Lewis Jr., executive director of the Safer Communities Ministries, said he has sent "tons of information" to lawmakers. He said that of the 111 inmates who have gone through the program during the past three years, 90 are still out of prison.

"We are building a model that we think could go statewide," Lewis said.

As a result of the involvement of the churches, the prison has found champions among Republican lawmakers who normally might be in favor of cutting government.

State Sen. Eddie Goodall, an outspoken GOP conservative who represents Union County, is a fan of the outreach program. With the prison system over capacity, Goodall says there needs to be a good reason for closing the Union County unit.

"This ministry is a blessing to so many," Goodall wrote on the prison ministry's Web site. "God is using Al Lewis and his dedicated support team to bring new life to men who are willing to embrace the Word while learning the skills necessary to succeed outside the prison walls."

Stopped cold

Finally, Perdue's proposal to cut Union ran into a legislative iceberg in the form of Democratic Sen. John Snow, a retired district court judge from Murphy who is co-chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the prison budget.

Snow's mountain district includes Haywood County Correctional Center, one of the three prisons the governor wants to close. It is the only state prison west of Asheville. Local officials said closing the Haywood unit would deprive the western mountains of inmate work crews for roads, schools and local governments in several counties.

The Haywood County commissioners passed a resolution saying that it would cost the county $80,227, at minimum wage, to replace the 12,248 man-hours inmate work crews provide.

"Who's going to keep the highways clean if Haywood Correctional Center closes?" the commissioners asked in the resolution.

So Snow's committee put the money back in the budget for the three prisons that Perdue wanted to cut. The full Senate subsequently approved the committee's action.

It happened so fast that Democratic Sen. Ed Jones, the former mayor of Enfield, didn't know what was happening. Jones, whose district includes the Gates County Correctional Center, had been working with community leaders on plans to convert the prison into a community center and a disaster center.

He was whipsawed by the back-and-forth over the prisons.

"It's in, it's out, it's in, it's out," said Jones, a retired highway trooper.

The budget is now before the House, where Democratic Rep. Pryor Gibson, chairman of the House Finance Committee, represents the district where the Union County prison is located.

Gibson said the prison is some of the "lowest hanging fruit," making it a likely target for budget cutters. But he pledged to use all his power to save it.

"Aaron Plyler and I worked together for years to make sure it got back in [the budget]," Gibson said. "I'm tickled to death that the Senate put it back in."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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