Johnston County

Johnston County needs a new jail. But where?

Lifelong Smithfield resident Laura Moore takes her dog Jack on an early-evening walk past the Johnston County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. The courthouse currently holds offices, courtrooms, the sheriff's department, and the county jail.
Lifelong Smithfield resident Laura Moore takes her dog Jack on an early-evening walk past the Johnston County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. The courthouse currently holds offices, courtrooms, the sheriff's department, and the county jail.

More than 200 inmates are squeezed into the jail beneath the Johnston County courthouse, with some sleeping on mats on the floor because there aren’t enough bunks.

More than 75 additional inmates can’t fit, so they are housed in Wayne and Sampson counties – a practice expected to cost taxpayers nearly $2 million this year.

Sheriff Steve Bizzell also worries about safety. If a fight breaks out in the cramped jail, he says, detention officers could easily be overwhelmed.

Many people in fast-growing Johnston County say a new jail is needed. But they disagree on whether it should be built in downtown Smithfield, home to locally owned shops and restaurants, or at a less-visible location farther from the town’s core.

County commissioners will host a public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, at the courthouse to hear feedback from residents.

“If you have feelings towards this detention center, please show up,” Commissioner Chad Stewart said. “We want the input. The last thing we want to do is what people don’t want doing.”

Public outcry led commissioners to abandon a plan they approved late last year to build a new public safety center on a 68-acre site on Buffalo Road in Smithfield, the county seat. The proposal included a new jail, sheriff’s office and 911 center.

Members of the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce led the fight, saying a jail would stifle economic growth in the area. Critics also worried about the site’s proximity to Smithfield-Selma High School and the town’s community center. Some said the land price was too high at $1.56 million, or $23,000 an acre.

“They just felt like that’s not what they wanted,” Stewart said. “Apparently last time we assumed a lot and it didn’t work. Now, we want this to be transparent. With something this large and controversial, I want input.”

Johnston County, home to more than 191,000 people, has seen tremendous growth as more families have moved to the Triangle for jobs. Many people in western Johnston, including Clayton, make the roughly 16-mile commute to Raleigh every day.

The county jail has been overcrowded for years. It’s meant to house 91 male and female inmates in open dormitory cells and 100 more in single-occupant cells, but it currently has about 293, including those who are sent to neighboring jails.

Gerrell checks clean jumpsuits
Captain James Gerrell, a deputy sheriff and Johnston County jail administrator, counts clean jumpsuits in the jail’s laundry room on August 21, 2017. The laundry room is small enough that only two washing machines and two dryers will fit. The machines must run from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day in order to meet the needs of more than 200 inmates. Autumn Linford

Expanding the jail at the courthouse in downtown Smithfield would cost about $33.5 million, compared with $36 million and the price of land for an off-site location.

A downtown expansion would add more than 300 beds. But with limited real estate available, there would be no room to expand later, and two county-owned parking lots would have to be destroyed in an area that already has limited parking. A new parking deck would add between $4.8 million and $7.7 million, depending on size.

Some downtown business owners say they are leaning toward the option to build a new jail away from town. Moving the jail off-site might encourage bail bondsmen and law offices to follow, freeing up storefront space for more traditional businesses, said Ian Milks, head chef of SodoSoPa, a restaurant a block from the courthouse.

“The biggest business in downtown now is crime,” Milks said. “I’d love to see boutiques and shops and things that would draw people in and make them come and visit Smithfield.”

It’s unclear where a new jail away from downtown would be built. The only county-owned lot large enough is the Johnston County landfill.

An off-site jail would ideally be built on a 10- to 15-acre lot within a few miles of Smithfield, according to Johnston County Manager Rick Hester. It would include 392 beds with space to add up to 200 more.

Inmates would need to be shuttled to and from the courthouse for some court dates, but they could use video conferencing for arraignments, which would reduce transportation costs.

If a jail is built elsewhere, the basement of the courthouse will be converted into courtrooms, which are also in short supply. The single-occupant cells would stay, as would all courtrooms and related offices.

“The county government will always have a presence in downtown Smithfield,” Commissioner Jeff Carver said. “We want (the courthouse building) to stay the centerpiece of Johnston County that it has been for more than 100 years. Anything less is not something we’re thinking about doing.”

‘Our duty’

Bizzell, the sheriff, said his jail staff needs some relief.

They prepare 600 meals a day in a narrow kitchen designed to cook 300. The medical center is the size of a typical school nurse’s office, with a wooden chair serving as an exam table. The laundry room is small enough for only two washers and two dryers.

“You learn to deal with what you’ve got to work with, and we’ve been doing that a long time,” Bizzell said. “We have kicked this down the road, but now it’s time to meet this need. We need a new jail.

“The number one priority of government is public safety, and part of that is a jail,” Bizzell said. “We’ve outgrown it. People would rather see kids in a nice school than inmates in a nice jail, and I agree, but it’s our duty to keep everyone safe.”

Carver said he hopes residents will share ideas at the public meeting.

“Taxpayers elected us to make those decisions, and we’re not afraid of doing that, but the more input I can get the better I can make a decision,” Carver said. “I want us to throw it all out there and say, ‘Here’s what we know, do you have a better way of doing it? What have we missed?’ 

Autumn Linford writes about Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email story ideas to her at autumnlinford@gmail.com.

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