Prison cuts tax already full system

LAWRENCEVILLE - For decades, Gwinnett prisoners have worked off their sentences cleaning roads and parks and government buildings, helping with recycling and picking up litter.

But a county government isn't obligated to operate a prison, especially when it means a $7 million subsidy by taxpayers.

When the budget got tight, commissioners decided to look at services that aren't mandated by law, and the prison was an expense they no longer wanted to bear.

In months, officials will stop the work release program that allowed people behind on their child support payments to work through their sentence, and within two years the entire prison will close.

"Prisoners are not going to be let out on the street," County Administrator Jock Connell said minutes before commissioners approved the closing, along with $41 million in cuts to services from parks to police.

"It's not a requirement of county government to offer one," he said, noting that the $13 million operation does bring about $6 million in revenues and labor services. "It's bleeding to the tune of $7 million a year. It became one of the top choices we needed to consider."

Sheriff Butch Conway, though, said the impact of the prison's closure would crowd his jail even further and destroy the quality of the community.

"We're just trading costs and we are losing value," Conway said, pointing out that it would take about $6 million to house inmates in other counties, since he already has about 400 inmates sleeping on the floor in the jail.

With the loss of the work release program, more families would have to apply for welfare payments to make ends meet while a loved one is incarcerated, and the jail is not equipped to send inmates off to work on litter patrols and other community programs.

"They are going to sit in a jail cell and be a total burden on taxpayers instead" of working for their benefit, Conway said. "For me it's a lose-lose situation, as a citizen and as sheriff."

According to Warden David Peek, many of the county inmates sentenced by local judges to the facility are scheduled to serve less than 12 months in the facility on misdemeanor charges.

While new inmates continue to arrive each day, he said the majority of the 512 beds will become empty simply because of attrition, once judges stop sentencing individuals to the facility.

But Conway said people with misdemeanor sentences will instead end up in his jail.

Chief Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson said the prison has been a tool for the court, both in the ability to sentence people to work release, so they can support their families while serving time, and in being able to negotiate plea bargaining deals.

"We will lose a valuable resource we've used for several years," Jackson said, adding that he did not know about the decision made almost two weeks ago. "We've been able to move cases using that facility (in terms of plea agreements). ... It's unfortunate we will be losing that capacity."

On top of the nearly 400 county inmates in the facility, the county signed an agreement in 1999 to house 128 state inmates in exchange for a $3.2 million grant to help with the construction of the new Gwinnett County Comprehensive Correctional Complex on Hi-Hope Road, which opened in 2003.

If the prison closes before February 2013, officials have to pay some of the money back. If it closed today, the county would owe the state nearly $1.3 million, Peek said. The obligation decreases to $646,945 in 2011, the year officials said it must close.

Michael Nail, deputy division director of the Georgia Department of Corrections, declined to comment about the contract, but he said the 128-bed loss would be easy to compensate for, as other county prisons have recently asked for more state inmates.

"It is beneficial to us," he said of the current housing arrangement. "We are always in the need for beds."

But with 60,000 inmates in the system, the county location is a small percentage of the need.

Closing prisons isn't a new way to balance budgets. In fact, Nail said his department is in the process of closing a 1,700-bed state prison in Milledgeville to save money, and a Stewart County prison also recently closed.

Nail said he did not believe the prison's closing would affect the county Sheriff's Department, which operates a jail to house people prior to their sentencing.

Because the local jail is already overcrowded, he said state officials have placed a priority on picking up inmates from there once they have been sentenced.

But Nail agrees with Connell. The closing will not mean that prisoners are released onto the streets. "We would simply transfer these inmates," he said.

In documents prepared when the county studied the closing option, officials said they could seek a private company to take over the prison or transfer its use to the state.

Nail said he has had no discussions about a state option.

Peek said little has been decided about how the closure will occur. Some people sentenced to work release will not have completed their sentence prior to the end of the year, and he did not know if the prison would be closed in phases, although one unit will be closed by January.

This year, Peek knows 13 staff members will have to go, although he said many could retire. In two years, though, all 142 staffers will be out of a job, if the plan to close continues.