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McCrory budget proposes closing 5 prisons

Governor Pat McCrory’s proposal to shut down five North Carolina prisons reflects a decrease in the inmate population.

The proposed budget, announced March 20, recommends consolidating spending in the state prison system and shutting down five of the oldest facilities in the state. The advised closures would save taxpayers money while having minimal effects on the state’s prison operations, said Pamela Walker, deputy director of communications with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Recent trends of decreased prison bookings are corroborated by sentencing projections, which predict that the decrease will continue.

“This was a very carefully measured response to a reduction in the inmate prison population,” Walker said. “We had to weigh [many] factors while also carrying out our mission of public safety and giving inmates tools to successful release.”

The proposed state budget—a 2 percent increase from the current $20.2 billion budget—focuses on streamlining spending to reallocate funding to necessary programs.

This $20.6 billion budget projects savings of $20 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which starts July 1. In addition to shutting down the five prisons, the plan proposes to boost the state’s pre-kindergarten programs, hire new teachers to meet enrollment growth and eliminate more than 3,000 teacher assistants. The new budget will also cut $150 million for the University of North Carolina system.

“We have a strong foundation, but the foundation now has some cracks in it,” McCrory said in his presentation of the proposal to state legislators. “Our immediate goal... is to fix those cracks, so we can have a stronger foundation for future generations.”

The state prison system is one “crack” that may see significant changes. The governor’s budget proposes shutting down five of the state’s 66 prisons to realign and consolidate spending—the cut could save taxpayers $54.4 million over two years, said Kim Genardo, communications director for the governor’s office.

The governor’s proposal is a measured response to the changing needs of the state’s prisons, Walker said. In recent years, the inmate population has seen significant decline—in 2010, the average daily population of inmates was 40,203. As of April 4, the state’s prisons housed 37,696 inmates.

Sentencing projections predict the downward trend will continue, Walker said. Projections from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission in 2012 predicted that in 2020, the inmate population was predicted to be 39,976 as compared to a previous prediction of 41,342.

If the budget is approved, the five prisons slated to close are men’s correctional centers in Bladen, Duplin, Robeson and Wayne counties, along with Western Youth Institution, male juvenile correctional facility in Burke County.

“We looked at facilities where we would have the least impact on the programming,” Walker said. “If one had a specialty type mission, or had a program that wasn’t given at other prisons, we carefully tried to decide whether it was one that we could absorb at another one of our open facilities.”

In the 2010 fiscal year, the total state expenditure on prisons was approximately $1.2 billion, with an average of $29,965 per inmate each year.

“The measured response included looking into how we can, based on the reduction of the population, manage the population more efficiently,” Walker said.

The prisons slated to shut down are the oldest prisons in the state, most requiring costly renovations and upgrades, and are more expensive to operate compared to the newer facilities. For example, Western Youth Institution in Morganton, N.C.—one of the prisons implicated in the proposal and built in 1972—would need $25 million in renovations and upgrades, Walker said.

Money saved through the proposed budget would allow for a $20 million reinvestment in community corrections programs that aim to increase the number of probation officers and reduce the inmate population in the long term.

“The budget is not just about reductions, it’s also about reinvesting some of the savings back into resources in the community,” Walker said.

County jails, in contrast to state correctional centers, are funded independently of state funds, and will remain unaffected by these proposed cuts, said Paul Sherwin, public information officer for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. The Durham County Jail has not seen a significant drop in the number of inmates like state prisons, Sherwin noted.

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