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'Raising Jails': Carolina Public Press series takes a look at how, and why, North Carolina counties are building bigger jails

Guilford County jail.jfif
Guilford County
/
WHQR
Moseley Architects designed the 1,000-bed expansion and renovation of the Guilford County Detention Center.

The series "examines how and why North Carolina counties decide to build bigger jails, the impact of deciding to build and potential policy changes that could lead to different outcomes." WHQR spoke with CPP reporter Jordan Wilkie about his work.

The four-part series tackles several key aspects of the county jail system:

The Raising Jails project was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press


Benjamin Schachtman: I'm joined now by Jordan Wilkie from Carolina Public Press, Jordan, thanks for being with us. And to start, give us a broad overview of what this series takes on.

Jordan Wilkie: The first story focuses on how jails come to be built, and the role that private companies that actually stand to profit from jail construction play in helping counties decide to build.

The second story is looking at counties that are seeking alternatives to building larger jails.

The third story is about how counties use their big jails; a lot of times they use them to house people for other jurisdictions. People may not realize that a third or half or even more of the people in that jail aren't actually from that county. And the last story looks at you know, what is the future of criminal justice and jail incarceration look like?

BS: So a recurring character in this series is Moseley Architects -- can you tell us a little bit about them and how they play into the series?

JW: I can only tell you a little bit about them, because they never responded to any of my requests for comments or questions or clarified any of their role in any of this…

They have become the most prominent firm that builds jails in North Carolina, in the last 10 years or so have built eight of the last 10 jails. The reporting doesn't really focus on the architectural aspect of their work; it focuses on this aspect where they help counties decide if the county should build a jail, and if so, how big.

So advocates who look at criminal justice reform point to this and say, you know, this isn't really in the wheelhouse of an architecture firm, this is a bit odd for them to be doing. And they also look at the assessments that the architecture firms do and say, you know, there are a lot of questions that aren't being answered. And the consequence is that the assessment shows that accounting needs to build a jail or build a much larger jail than advocates would say is necessary.

BS: So in Bladen, county, you looked at this calculus of housing, state and federal prisoners -- can you say a little bit about how that works?

JW: There is a demand for bed space. The vast, vast majority of people who are held in detention are held before trial before they're actually convicted of anything. When we arrest a lot of these people, the government then becomes responsible for putting them somewhere.

The solution that people have come up with is they look for counties that have extra bed space, and they say, you know, can we use it in exchange for some payment? The state did this with the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2011. The state pays counties $40 a day to house people convicted on these relatively low level offenses, these misdemeanors, in jail rather than filling the prison with them. So that's one way people get there. The federal government, the US Marshals house a lot of people and so they pay county jails to have a number of beds available for federal prisoners, and they pay much better than the state.

BS: And last thing here, can you briefly say something about some of the alternatives counties are looking at faced with some of the larger price tags of these jail projects?

JW: So a number of counties are expanding their jails and are pursuing alternatives to make sure they don't fill the jail. The main reform that a lot of people are looking at is called pretrial release or bail reform, where you change the conditions that allow someone to get out of jail. Right now, the vast majority of people in jail have to pay some sort of money in order to be released, even on really low level offenses. A lot of places are looking at following Mecklenburg [County]’s lead where they started really thinking about who needs to be in jail, who is a risk to public safety and who isn't. And they were looking at spending over $100 million dollars and building a new jail facility but after carefully considering their jail population, they decreased the bed capacity really significantly and are saving just a lot of money.

BS: All right. Well, it's a really interesting series Jordan Wilkie from Carolina public press. Thank you so much as always, for being with us.

JW: Yeah, absolutely.