Politics & Government

Commissioners won't give up federal funds for jail

Orange County leaders aren't willing to give up the millions of dollars they receive to house federal prisoners in the Orange County jail despite the fact that it leads to overcrowding.

But Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday said they likely will have to spend capital projects money in the next few years to add space in the jail.

Commissioners dismissed a recent state report citing the jail for having dozens of prisoners sleep on mattresses on the floor as "somewhat misleading," and said that prisoners were not mistreated.

Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass said most county jails experience overcrowding. He pointed out that the jail met other inspection criteria for cleanliness.

"We really are not overcrowded, with the sanitation and everything. We've met [the criteria] inspection-wise," he told the commissioners during a meeting Tuesday night. "Some sleep on mattresses, but it wasn't that bad."

An inspector from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services found 174 inmates in the jail last July, 45 over the 129-person capacity. That's somewhat higher than the 162 inmates the jail has averaged since July 2007. Of that number, an average of 76 were federal prisoners, for which the county receives about $2.5 million a year.

"Two-point-five million is about two cents on the [property] tax rate," Commissioner Moses Carey said. "I can't see us just saying good-bye to that because the taxpayers are going to have to pick that up."

The commissioners said they would give priority to expanding jail facilities when they review their slate of capital projects in the fall.

But Carey noted that will be a short-term fix.

Pendergrass said delays in the court system and the state's own problem with prison overcrowding keeps some inmates in the county jail that shouldn't be.

When the Orange County jail was inspected on July 8, Pendergrass said, five prisoners were awaiting space in a state prison, nine were serving sentences of more than 30 days, and seven were shipped in from other jurisdictions to await trial in Orange County Superior Court.