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Behind the bars
County looking to close prison to cut budget

LAWRENCEVILLE - Should Gwinnett taxpayers continue to support a county prison?

It's a question county leaders are grappling with as they study ways to cut millions from the government's budget.

In Georgia, few counties worry about corrections, leaving the issue to the state.

But could closing a 512-bed prison mean more criminals are on the streets?

Is the labor used to sort recycling, pick up litter and clean parks worth the expense?

Those are questions commissioners will ultimately decide.

"It's not just an issue of doing math on the prison," to see how much the closing would save taxpayers, County Administrator Jock Connell said. "It's an issue of the service they are providing."

But many of the county's top public safety brass don't want to see the prison closed.

"It's a very valuable facility," Gwinnett's Chief Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson said. But he admits he hasn't run the cost-benefit analysis of the labor and operations. "(Closing) it may have some effects. Will it cause jail backlogs? It has a domino effect."

Prison labor

Gwinnett's correctional complex is a rarity.

All 159 Georgia counties have a jail to house defendants before conviction; only 23 have a prison to place them after conviction.

Instead, the majority of prisoners with more than one year to serve spend their time in state institutions.

Interim Warden David Peek, who has run the Gwinnett County Correctional Complex since January of 2008, said the majority of the other county prisons do little to house county inmates - those with a sentence of less than one year - instead relying on state prison labor to help maintain county services.

In Gwinnett, though, the county prison houses hundreds of county inmates and provides labor for a variety of government facilities.

The center opened in the 1920s, and inmates worked on a traditional "prison farm," literally farming and patching roads.

A new facility was built in 1957, remodeled in 1984 and then torn down after a state-of-the-art prison was opened in 2003.

Today, the county correctional center at 750 Hi-Hope Road in Lawrenceville houses at least 128 state inmates due to a grant by the Georgia Department of Corrections used for the construction of the new facility.

Until last year, local judges could sentence any convict to serve at the local prison, but a Court of Appeals decision relating to another county ruled that felons must be dealt with by the state.

Peek said state inmates must qualify for the county prison system, matching the medium security classification and often only at the end of a long sentence as a kind of transition to the outside world.

But because of overcrowding, state inmates often remain in county custody if they have less than 12 months to serve because the state simply does not pick them up.

"It's always better to put sentenced inmates in prison rather than jail," District Attorney Danny Porter said, adding that it not only allows jails to function better as a processing center for people who have not been convicted but that a prison provides programs such as GED classes to help inmates prepare to return to society. "A lot of times, they will go to the work camp rather than crowd the jail."

The prison also has 288 work release beds, which allow child support defendants and other criminal inmates to leave the prison to work during the day.

The "residents," who have separate sleeping quarters from prisoners, pay an administrative fee of $125 and $16 a day for room and board. In 2008, the program brought in about $699,186, Peek said.

A work alternative program, for people sentenced to community service work on the weekends, is also run out of the prison. With an $85 administrative fee and a daily rate on a sliding scale, the program brought in $135,152 in 2008.

The county's recreation fund and recycling program pay for the inmate labor used to clean parks and sort recycling, and three cities who use prison labor also pay a fee.

In all, Peek said about 53 percent of the prison's expenses are made up in revenues and labor, including 5,348 miles of road shoulder cleaned, 25 million pounds of recyclable materials processed and 93,451 square feet of graffiti eradicated at 355 sites within the county.

Crowded cells

Officials are looking to cut the county's budget to the tune of at least $30 million, and the prison's $13.5 million operating budget could make a hefty dent.

While closing the prison and selling the building is one option, officials are also looking into increasing the number of state inmates in the facility, since the state pays $20 per inmate.

Last year that amounted to $1.6 million. But over the course of the year, the state inmate population was reduced from 254 to 128, mostly because officials wanted to make room for more county inmates to relieve the crowded, 2,744-bed Gwinnett County Jail. There, the sheriff needed to bring inmates off the floor to meet federal guidelines, so the jail could participate in an immigration program that allows deputies to begin deportation proceedings on illegals.

"We're still full, but it's less overcrowded," Sheriff Butch Conway said of the jail since the prison has taken more county inmates.

Conway is trying to avoid paying deputies overtime by keeping some housing units empty, but he said closing the prison would force about 400 inmates back into the jail.

"I don't have room for them," he said.

To reach the federal requirements for the immigration program, the sheriff would have to pay to house the county inmates at another facility in the state, at a cost of $40 a day - twice what the state would pay to house more inmates in the prison.

"We are working together to save money for the citizens," Conway said.

If the prison is closed, Peek said the situation may be worse than overcrowding the jail.

"The short answer is you are going to have more inmates on the street," he said. "The state is at full capacity, and they are going to have to turn someone out."

As far as county inmates crowding the jail, "I don't know how (the sheriff) would find room for them," Peek said.

Commissioners Tuesday will consider a revamped county budget, which includes a line-item to study privatizing jail operations.

Timing issue

Officials agree the timing isn't the best to consider closing the prison. It's been just six years since the county spent $21.2 million to build a new prison. And the county is four years shy of an agreement with the state guaranteeing bed space, which would force a repayment of a $3.2 million grant. The study also comes as the prison nears the end of a three-year-long accreditation process.

In December, when the possibility of the prison's closure was first reported, county leaders told prison officials to continue with the accreditation process, and in February, assessors visited the facility.

Peek said he believes the facility meets all 60 mandatory standards for accreditation and 98 percent of the 419 nonmandatory standards that relate to the male-only prison.

The results from the American Correctional Association are expected to come in August, although assessors told prison officials they would recommend approval.

"We're operating the department as if we are going to be here," Peek said of continuing the accreditation process.

He said correctional officers were concerned when reports of the possible closure surfaced, but he said the decision is out of his hands.

"The commissioners, they are in a tough spot, they've got some very difficult decisions to make," he said. "What happens in 2010, we'll just have to see what happens."

Porter said he understands the problem of cutting millions from the county budget, but he said he doesn't know if closing the prison makes economic sense.

"It would be unfortunate to close the county correctional institute because it offers a sentencing alternative that otherwise would not be available," he said. "I seems to me there are a lot of things that can be cut before you get to public safety, and the prison offers us a public safety option."