My Turn: An incorrect rationale

Published 7:55 pm Saturday, April 19, 2014

By Warren Smith                                                                                   

Recently one of our county commissioners offered an explanation of the business plan behind his support for the new jail.  He mentioned that Beaufort County’s 85-bed jail has prisoner classification requirements that limit the number of men incarcerated to 70 inmates, while women generally number another 5 inmates.  The commissioner then hypothesized that in the near future the county might have as many as 35 inmates transferred to off-site facilities at a cost of $55 per person per day, i.e., $702,625 per year.  Repatriating these inmates to Beaufort Count would constitute an enormous saving.  When the new 176-bed jail is completed as many as 60 or 70 additional inmates could be received from other jurisdictions and they would, actually, pay $1,402,250 in reimbursement fees to Beaufort County, N.C.

Who doesn’t love new money?

However, when I go to the grocery store and hand over $55, I expect them to give me something worth nearly $55 in return.  I am reasonably sure the prison system’s expectation on reimbursement mirrors my own.  Thus the phrase “reimbursement fee.” It speaks to receiving something in exchange for something else.  Reimbursement scoffs at the philosophy of something for nothing.

Assuming, for the moment, that the reimbursement fee for inmate housing allows a 10% margin of profit, then Beaufort County would be expected to provide a basket of goods and services associated with inmate housing and care that should cost the county roughly $50 per inmate per day.  The $2,107,875 yearly stipend that the commissioner seems to believe would accompany the new jail has quickly become something closer to $200,000.  Now $200,000 is nothing to sneeze at unless it requires borrowing $20,000,000 at 3.5% and paying $950,000 per year in debt service to acquire.

Here in lies the problem with the new jail. Of the 176 inmates only 60 to 70 will be paying anything toward their maintenance, and at best, they will be paying only a small margin above their cost of daily maintenance.  However, the capital costs for the money being borrowed are too large to be covered by the small number of revenue producing inmates.  Not only is this a bad idea, it is a really bad idea.  It is such a disaster that the jail’s supporters on the county board refused to put the issue to a popular vote and they have passed a motion that discussion of the plan’s more obvious short comings can not be brought up in council for six months.  Welcome to Moscow on the Pamlico.

The reimbursement fee is a bargain.  The most reasonable approach to someone selling you a service at a reasonable price is to buy all you can get.  Beaufort County should keep a manageable inmate population at the current jail and pay neighboring jailers to receive every inmate who exceeds our limit.  Taxpayers would have a set fee for the service and be able to avoid the liabilities that arise from being responsible for the management, health care and safety of another human being.


Warren Smith

Beaufort County, NC