Board revives jail talk

Published 1:05 am Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday revived discussion about a new county jail.

Those discussions revealed continuing deep divisions among county leaders over where a new jail should be located and what it should include.

“We all agree that we need a new jail,” said board Chairman Jerry Langley, who asked that the subject be put on the board’s agenda. “The thing that divides the commissioners is the location, but we should begin the discussion again about where we’re going to put it.”

The issues involved in siting and building a new jail were the subject of much debate by county leaders in 2008 and 2009, but the economic downturn and financial difficulties facing the local hospital eclipsed the issue.

A recent tour of the jail by the county’s grand jury and a subsequent report citing the jail’s many deficiencies have helped bring the issue back to the forefront of discussion, Langley told the board.

The jail, in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse, has been described by county leaders in previous news reports as “a maze of narrow, crowded, stifling cell blocks.”

In the 1980s, prisoners won a lawsuit against the jail because of overcrowding, which forced much of the facility to convert to jail cells. The realignment severely reduced the administrative area for jail employees.

The detention center, which was originally built to house roughly 35 inmates, regularly houses about 85 inmates, according to previous reports.

While the commissioners generally agree that a new jail should be sited on the north side of the Pamlico River, Monday’s discussion showed little agreement on anything else.

Some commissioners, including Hood Richardson, maintain the new jail should be built as close to the courthouse as possible to reduce the costs associated with transporting prisoners to their trials and court hearings.

Other commissioners, including Langley and Al Klemm, prefer that the new jail be part of a law-enforcement complex that includes new offices for the sheriff and deputies and a new communications center.

All agree that construction of a new jail — in whatever form it takes — will depend on Beaufort County voters’ approval of borrowing money by issuing bonds to build it.

“It’s going to be the taxpayers of Beaufort County who pay for it,” Langley said, adding that he feared continued inaction by Beaufort County leaders and residents in replacing the aging jail would lead to a mandate by federal officials.

“That’s a position I don’t want the county to be in,” he said.

The board, on a recommendation by Commissioner Robert Cayton, asked County Manager Randell Woodruff to prepare a report on previous discussions about the new jail and present it to the county board at its next meeting.