Johnston County built its jail to house 100 inmates. That was in 1988.
Eleven years later, the jail added 91 beds, bringing its capacity to 191.
On a recent Tuesday, the inmate count stood at 239, and that didn’t include the nine inmates Sheriff Steve Bizzell was housing in Sampson County – at a cost of $50 per inmate per day.
The number of inmates housed out of county fluctuates daily, with the monthly cost sometimes approaching $20,000, not including any medical expenses.
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“I would rather have seen the $20,000 go to a payment toward our new jail than send it down there to pay for their jail,” he said.
Earlier this month, Bizzell made that argument to Johnston’s county commissioners, who heard from the sheriff and other department heads during their annual retreat.
The number of inmates at the jail has been increasing as the county grows. Although Johnston’s growing population is a contributing factor, Bizzell said the leading reason is increased drug offenses.
At the jail, one-person cells house two inmates, one on a bed and another on a mattress on the floor. The kitchen and laundry, built for 100 inmates, regularly cook meals and wash clothes for more than twice that number.
The jail’s medical staff operates out of a small room, now crowded with supplies, that couldn’t expand when the jail added space for 91 inmates 17 years ago. The staff sees up to 30 inmates a day, the sheriff said.
The visitors’ room has just five booths; visitors call ahead for appointments, Bizzell said.
As for the room where staff monitored visits, it’s now for mental health care, though large windows on three sides don’t allow much privacy, the sheriff and jail staff said.
Matters could be worse, Bizzell said.
In 1999, the county signed an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service. In exchange for $1.5 million to expand the jail, the county agreed to house up to 60 federal inmates on any given day.
The marshals don’t come calling all that often because they know the pressure the Johnston jail is under, Bizzell said. “We’re blessed ... that the U.S. marshal for the Eastern District is working with us,” he said.
But understanding has its limits, the sheriff said. “He can only do so much, and he’s got the heartburn from Washington: ‘Why aren’t we using the Johnston County jail? It’s right outside of Raleigh,’ ” Bizzell said.
“It’s cheaper for them to house out here than other areas of the state,” he added.
It helps too that inspectors from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services don’t come poking around Johnston’s jail often, Bizzell said, noting that a jail elsewhere in North Carolina recently had 24 hours to reduce its inmate count after a state inspection. “If that was to happen with us, we’d be in trouble,” he said.
Bizzell said he keeps telling the feds and state inspectors that the county is planning a jail expansion. “That one’s pretty tired by now,” he said. “I’ve been using that excuse for years and years, and I’ve run out of time and ideas.”
Like crime, jail populations rise and fall, but in the past two years, Johnston’s jail population “has spiked and has continued to increase, especially in the number of females that we are housing,” Bizzell said.
The jail that opened in 1988 had room for nine women; the 1999 expansion increased that capacity to 21. On March 8, the female population was 33, with another nine women housed in the Sampson County jail.
But Sampson County is running out of room, Bizzell said, which could leave Johnston searching for another jail to hold its inmate overflow, and at daily rates higher than what Sampson charges.
Many Johnston jail inmates are behind bars because of drugs, mostly making, dealing or possessing meth, but also cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Of the 239 inmates on March 8, more than 70 were there because of drugs.
The lengthy trial process, especially for violent crime, adds to the crowding, Bizzell said. In the jail recently were 10 people awaiting trial on charges of first- or second-degree murder. Eight of those have been in the jail for more than a year – and one of those for nearly two years.
A larger jail population takes more staff time, Bizzell said. Rounds to check on inmates take longer, demands on the kitchen and and medical staffs are higher, and safety risks increase, demanding ever-vigilant jailers, he said.
Weekends make matters worse, Bizzell said, with people arriving to serve short sentences for driving while impaired and similar offenses.
“The additional workload of having to book numerous people in on Friday afternoon and book them out on Sunday just adds to the existing problem,” he said. “We’re in trouble.”
A new jail
At the commissioners’ retreat on March 4, Bizzell asked county leaders to begin planning for a new jail that staff has estimated could cost up to $30 million. The alternative, Bizzell said, is to keep sending inmates elsewhere at a daily cost that will only grow over time.
Bizzell said he had budgeted $200,000 next year to house inmates elsewhere. “To be honest with you, I don’t think that’s going to be enough,” he said.
Commissioners’ Chairman Tony Braswell said his board has created a working group to consider county priorities in the coming years, and jail space is among them.
But he said a jail won’t top the list. “We do have schools to build,” Braswell said, “so it depends on how much debt capacity we’re going to be able to acquire. Our priorities have to go to schools, and rightfully so.”
A new jail is a longer-term project, “even though we are above capacity and even though we need the additional space now,” Braswell said. “It’s probably going to have to be something we do over a period of several years, but we need to begin that process now.”
The first step is deciding where to build a new jail, Braswell said. “Once we resolve that, we’ll have a clear understanding of how we want to proceed,” he said.
From design to construction, Bizzell and county staff expect a new jail to take three to four years to complete, and they doubt downtown Smithfield has the room needed.
“I know some people want to keep the jail downtown,” the sheriff said. “But there’s not space without having to acquire property like people’s homes. We can’t build up.”
Bizzell and county staff said the county should look to build a jail for 600 inmates, starting with space for 400 but with room to expand. The kitchen, laundry and support areas should be built with 600 inmates in mind, they said.
The county might also consider housing the county’s 911 call center and emergency services on the grounds of a new jail, the sheriff said.
Bizzell said he didn’t enjoy coming to county commissioners to ask for a $30 million jail. “I’m the sheriff; I’m the last person who wants us to have a need for a bigger jail,” he said. “What I’m concerned with, other than housing, is a lawsuit.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett
By the numbers
1988: Year Johnston County jail was built.
100: Number of inmates jail was built to house.
191: Inmate capacity after an expansion in 1999.
239: Number of inmates jail held earlier this month.
70: Number of inmates behind bars on drug charges, the most common charges among inmates.
$46,450: Total amount of money Johnston County spent to house inmates in the Sampson County jail in December, January and February, not including medical expenses.
9: Number of inmates Sheriff Steve Bizzell had to send to Sampson County recently because jail is overcrowded.
$50: Amount of money per inmate per day Johnston County pays Sampson County to house its excess inmates.
$85-$120: Amount of money Johnston County could pay per inmate per day to house inmates in other counties, since Sampson’s jail is full.
4: Number of years it would take to open a new jail if Johnston County began the work today.
600: Number of inmates a new Johnston County jail should be built to hold, according to staff.
$30 million: Amount of money it will cost Johnston County to build a new jail, according to one estimate.
$200,000: Amount of money the sheriff has budgeted for housing inmates outside of Johnston County in the next fiscal year.
60: Number of federal inmates the federal government could drop on Johnston County’s doorstep any day, according to a 1999 agreement.