04/07/14 — Officials eye prison

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Officials eye prison

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 7, 2014 2:08 PM

The old two-story story brick building at the shuttered Wayne Correctional Center survived Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Whether it survives Wayne County's dream of turning it into a jail remains to be seen.

And if it does, it could require costly renovations.

Wayne County commissioners, Sheriff Larry Pierce and other officials who toured the property Thursday morning hope to have a clearer picture of what renovations will be needed, and the costs involved, later this month, when they meet with architects interested in doing the work.

However, after the tour, Pierce and commissioners expressed confidence that the facility would make a suitable, and large enough, jail so that the county would no longer have to house inmates in other counties.

This year alone the county will spend nearly $1 million to keep inmates in other counties because of chronic overcrowding at the existing Wayne County Jail.

Commissioners, who view the property as a viable alternative to building a new $60-$70 million jail, have asked the state to give the property to the county.

They also are asking that the county be exempted from having to bring the old prison up to state jail standards -- at least at the start.

State Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Calypso last month said that Division of Adult Correction Commissioner David Guise told him that there is not another state use for the property, and that he was going to put it on the fast track to be conveyed to the county.

Dixon also supports the exemption, at least at the start.

A feasibility study on that project, and the existing jail, has been on hold since December as the county waits on a decision from the state.

Interim County Manager George Wood said he believes the newer buildings at the site have the potential to be a short-term fix.

The architects would look at the funding of renovation versus new construction, he said.

There are several advantages to the prison property that was closed by state budget cuts last October, he said.

Unlike the existing jail, the area is not landlocked -- something that prevents expansion. Also, the area already is used to having a prison there. If the county had to build elsewhere, there would be issues of zoning and concerns of people who live or work nearby, he said.

"It is my first trip out here, but I am encouraged," Pierce said. "We are having to farm out our people every day that are in the jail that is over capacity. We have got to do something in a fairly fast fashion. Though I am encouraged, there are a lot of renovations that have to be done out here. There are some areas -- the newer facilities -- out here that I think we can utilize in the near future, so I am encouraged on that.

"We are not going to be able to move straight in. We are going to have to do renovations before we can come in and have individualized cells. There will have to be renovations in that fashion before can move in here."

The county jail system is more stringently inspected and coded than state prisons, he said.

"I think we will be able to use some of these facilities in the near future and maybe save the county some money by doing that," Pierce said.

Local legislators are on board with the plan and say they believe it could be approved during the legislative short session that starts next month, said Commissioner Ray Mayo, chairman of the commission's Facilities Committee.

"We are going to have presentations at our next commissioners' meeting from four architects that that are going to give us presentations on what they think we should do with this facility in order to turn it into a jail," Mayo said. "We are spending about $900,000 a year sending inmates to other counties. We just feel like we need to keep that money here in Wayne County."

Mayo said he sees potential in some of the buildings, but that some of the older buildings may be "a little more in-depth as far as remodeling."

"What we are looking at is doable, but the key is that how much is it going to cost, and what kind of time frame are we looking at?" he asked. "Because, keep in mind again, $900,000 a year is what Wayne County is paying to send inmates to other counties. That is one of the main concerns that we have.

"The buildings are really built well. There have been some renovations done here over the last five years. I think the general attitude from what I have seen here this morning is let's look at it, let's see if we can use it."

There is no way the county could just move in and use the facility as is, Commissioner John Bell noted.

"We would have to put in a sprinkler system and have it brought up to jail standards to be used," Bell said. "When you think about the amount of space that is part of this complex, and all of the good buildings that we have in the back, there is no way we can build a new building and have this kind of space.

Commission Chairman Wayne Aycock said he feels confident about the property's potential.

"I feel good that the new buildings out here, I think we can take them and do some renovations and probably save the taxpayers a lot of money," he said.