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July 20, 2008 -- Fayetteville Observer (NC)

"Expanding Prisons Mean More Jobs"

By John Fuquay

RALEIGH -- With the new state budget, lawmakers have approved more than $30 million over the past two years to expand the state prison in Scotland County, which opened just five years ago.

The prison is one of six that state lawmakers have approved since 2001 to address a dire need for prison space, and they are already being expanded. When complete, the construction and expansions at all six facilities will have cost more than $700million and operating costs will top $100 million annually.

Projects like the one in Scotland have become a boon for rural, economically distressed counties. Prison jobs bring added payroll, boost housing markets and draw new retail customers to poor parts of the state.

Scotland County's 1,000-bed prison was the first of the six new facilities to be completed. The prison, just outside Laurinburg, opened in 2003 at a cost of $90 million, and it quickly filled. Last year, it became the first of those six new prisons to begin a 500-bed expansion at a price of $19million. The $13 million approved by lawmakers this year will go toward a 250-bed expansion. The expansions will create an additional 174 jobs.

But the spending also has come under scrutiny, with some saying the state spends too much on incarceration and not enough on substance abuse programs or community monitoring that would reduce the demand for prison space.

"Our inmate population grows 800 to 1,000 inmates a year," said Boyd Bennett, the state director of prisons. "We're having to pretty much build a new prison a year just to keep up."

Bennett said the inmate population is about 39,640 -- nearly doubling in the past 15 years -- and there is a backlog of more than 350 inmates scattered around the state's county jails who are waiting for a state prison cell to open.

He said growth projections show the state needs to build an additional 7,000 prison beds to be ready for the inmate population in 2017.

The six newest prisons were built for "close security" inmates -- those who fall between maximum and medium security. Each one was built with food and laundry services and infrastructure capable of accommodating an additional 500 medium security beds and 250 minimum security beds. The expansions are for cells only.

"While these new 1,000 bed prisons were being built, they were being built with the intention to expand," Bennett said. "Since Scotland was first, it was the first one to expand."

Both the state population and prison population grow about 2.2 percent yearly, Bennett said. But the prison system faces a double whammy: Prisoners already there are staying longer than they used to.

Inmates incarcerated since 1995 have been sentenced under mandatory minimum guidelines called structured sentencing. No longer could inmates receive an early parole.

In addition, lawmakers continue to create new criminal offenses and make criminal penalties tougher, which increases the demand for prison space.

Before lawmakers left Raleigh on Friday, they passed anti-gang legislation that criminalizes gang-related activity. The new penalties are predicted to add almost 180 inmates within a year, costing more than $30million for space and expenses.

Lawmakers also increased penalties for sexual offenses this year, potentially adding years to the sentence for raping a child.

Opponents of the prison boom say the state relies too heavily on incarceration.

"There are many alternatives to prison that we could be doing in this state," said Lao Rubert, policy director for the Carolina Justice Policy Center, a Durham-based nonprofit that promotes sentencing reform and community-based corrections.

"The ratio of spending is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 to 1 in terms of prison expenses to community-based correction expenses. It's not so much, 'Are we going to keep spending millions of millions on building more prisons?' The question is, are we going to change that ratio a little bit and provide more for community programs?''

Rubert said more funding for substance abuse and decriminalizing some drug offenses would significantly reduce the demand for prison space. Some states, she said, address drug abuse as a health issue rather than send drug addicts to prison.

Job training, more intensive community monitoring, such as daily reporting to a probation officer, and training to help newly released prisoners transition into society are other programs that Rubert said would ease prison crowding. She said some of the state's rural areas offer limited support in those areas, but the services are particularly lacking in rural areas.

She said lawmakers and corrections officials agree that community corrections are a vital element in the state's overall solution to crime and punishment. But the question, she said, is how best to divide the resources.

"What do you get for your money if you spend $27,000 per year to put a person in prison, and they come out with a recidivism rate that is at worst the same as if they went through a community corrections program for between $4,000 and $8,000?" Rubert asked. "Or, if their recidivism is 50percent less, how would you want to spend your money?

"It's not a matter of being tough on crime, it's what's the best way to spend your money," she said. "There's got to be a better mix."

Concerns vs. benefits But for towns like Laurinburg and Tabor City, where the last of the six newest prisons is being built, the prisons mean jobs and money for the local economy.

Belinda Graves, president of the Tabor City Chamber of Commerce, said some residents at first were uneasy about a prison coming to town.

"There was some concern, and there was excitement," Graves said. "Some people had concerns about the possibility of escaped inmates, but those concerns have died down. Most people are excited about the jobs."

Graves has firsthand knowledge. The prison will provide about 600 jobs, easily becoming the biggest employer in the town of about 2,500 residents. And she has one -- working as an inmate processing assistant after the prison opens.

Graves said the prison also is expected to provide an economic boost to restaurants, gas stations and other local businesses.

"People are always a little leery of anything new," Columbus County Board of Commissioners Chairman James Prevatte said. "There were a few reservations, you know, 'Can't we attract anything else new besides a prison?' But like a lot of other areas in the state, our unemployment is high. This is having a positive economic impact, and the Tabor City area is real excited. They're seeing a lot of new homes going in."

The spin-off benefits were seen in Scotland County even before the prison opened. The prison's construction provided jobs, and some materials came from local suppliers.

"We view that prison as a positive," said J.D. Willis, chairman of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners, who lobbied for the prison in 2000 and 2001 before the site was chosen. "We had to hold a public hearing before it came here, and we had no negative comments whatsoever."

The Scotland prison has a $16.9million annual payroll, Willis said, and almost 200 of the prison's 410 jobs are filled by county residents. The others, who come from Robeson, Hoke, Bladen and other surrounding counties, dine and buy gas and other goods in Laurinburg.

Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Brock said Scotland County so badly needed a lift that the prison was not seen as a dirty industry, unlike a large landfill that was considered in the county until the plans were scrapped last year.

"We have the No. 1 highest tax rate in the state," Brock said. "It's a huge negative to be No. 1 in taxes. We're very desperate to increase our tax base."

He said the prison has been a positive for the community.

"I haven't heard any negatives in terms of having the prison here," Brock said. "A lot of the reason is unemployment is so high. People are obviously happy to have the opportunity for jobs."

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