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Jail system 'damaged' but hopeful

LAWRENCEVILLE — After planning closure for six months, Gwinnett's corrections department is "damaged," Warden David Peek said to members of the Engage Gwinnett study committee Thursday.

But a decision this week to continue the operation beyond its July 2011 closure date will allow the department to rebuild.

"We've been in phase-out mode since July, so a lot of our programs have gone away," Peek said. "The department is damaged. It'll take several months to get back to normal service levels."

Because the work release program was expected to close at the end of the year before this week's vote, only 70 of 288 work release beds are filled.

Peek said the program was also hit by the economy, where many of the people sentenced to the program were unable to find jobs, but he said judges are likely to resume sentencing delinquent child support defendants to the service.

"It's struggling now, but it's a very valuable program," Peek said.

Because participants paid fees to be a part of the work release program, the revenues have gone down as well.

"We've been on a roller coaster ride in 2009," he said, adding that the department gained accreditation just three weeks after the summer vote to slate its closure.

The planned phasing of the closure also meant the prison's GED teacher had been laid off.

Peek described the ability for high school dropouts to get general equivalency diplomas is "the very cornerstone" of services to stop offenders from committing crime in the future.

In 2008, 63 inmates earned GEDs, but in 2009, only 31 completed the training before the teacher was let go.

To save money, officials closed down one housing unit, transferring 64 inmates to the county jail and other facilities.

And because many corrections officers found new jobs to avoid a future layoff, the prison's work crews have been cut.

At its peak, 25 crews of inmates were in the community each day, cleaning parks, public buildings, mowing, painting graffiti and other manual labor tasks. Now, Peek said, there are 10, and two more are expected to be cut soon.

Because of the decrease in both revenues from housing state inmates and the work release fees as well as the drop in labor, the percentage of the department's budget that was paid for in money and labor reduced from 53 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2009.

But, Peek said, "We are open for business again."

Responding to a question from a committee member, the warden said the once-proposed closure "on paper, looked like a $7 million savings."

However, inmates would have to be housed somewhere, and programs to try to stave off reoffenses would mean more repeat offenders.

In the end, more offenders would be on the streets, said Peek, a former police officer.

"I don't think that's a good recipe for public safety," he said. "I'm happy we've taken another look at that."

Committee member Herman Pennamon questioned the amenities at the jail.

"Sometimes, it's too good for them in jail," he said. "Why don't we make it more tough for them, so they don't want to go back?"

But Peek said meals are based on state requirements for calories and medical needs have to be met.

"It's not a country club environment by any means," he said.

He added that the television in each housing unit, which is paid for by inmate commissary funds, not tax dollars, is used as a management tool for corrections officers to reward or punish behavior.