SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – Jail overcrowding in Johnston County has the sheriff looking for more cell space, but some people near a possible new jail site say they don’t want it close them.
Sheriff Steve Bizzell said the current jail at the courthouse has space for 191 inmates. There were 206 men and 41 women in his custody Thursday, and there were 285 total at one point this summer.
Bizzell said they’ve doubled up in some cells and brought additional mattresses in to the dormitories to put on the floor, but even that isn’t enough. The county is paying $50 per inmate per day to Sampson and Harnett County to house some of the inmates. Fifteen of Johnston County’s female inmates were in those other two jails on Thursday.
“We don’t like bunking them up to two in a cell. We don’t like to, we don’t want to, but sometimes, we have to,” Bizzell said.
“Overcrowding of inmates in a jail is never good. It’s a concern for safety, not only the inmates but the staff.”
The Johnston County Jail expanded from its original intended capacity of 100 to the current 191 in 1999, but some facilities such as the kitchen and laundry did not increase. Bizzell said his staff often serves more than 700 meals a day in a space equipped for 300.
The sheriff said he’s been trying to convince the county commissioners to build a new jail for about a decade.
“We’re one of the fastest growing counties in North Carolina, and with that comes, unfortunately, crime and the need to continue to keep our jail in good shape,” county manager Rick Hester said.
“Our plan is to build a professional campus, not only a jail, but a sheriff’s department, 911 center, EMS facility, but it’ll take years to do that and pay for it.”
Hester said the county commission and sheriff looked at nearly 10 possible locations for the future public safety complex. Commissioners voted four to three in favor of a 68-acre site on the edge of the city limits at the intersection of Buffalo Road and Durwood Stephenson Highway. Hester said the reasoning behind the no votes included cost and location.
Smithfield-Selma High School, Smithfield Middle School, and the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center are all within a half mile of the land. That causes some concern among people who live and work in the area.
“I feel like it’s more safer out in the county instead of this environment around houses, around the children and stuff like that. In case somebody break out of the jail, they can’t break in nobody’s house and hold a hostage, stuff like that,” Cotton said.
He said he would prefer the county spend money on other things, such as improving roads and taking care of the homeless.
Shadé Earl said she worries about a jail being in view of students arriving on campus for class.
“You have one, two, three schools right here, you have a bank right there, you have residents,” Earl said.
“For a possible escape, what if one of these inmates just so happened to become armed and then you have a loose person armed, around a lot of kids. Then you have a lockdown which is causing probably all of Johnston County (law enforcement to come here), if not bring in more.”
But Jesse Lewis, who is friends with Cotton and Earl, said he doesn’t have any issue with a jail being nearby. He said it is open land that could be put to use.
“They don’t build jails for people to escape. We don’t expect that,” Lewis said.
“If the jail is built properly, I don’t see what it would interfere with in this area.”
The sheriff and county manager pointed out that the current jail is downtown with preschools, churches, and businesses nearby. Cells are on the bottom and top floors of the courthouse, with a heavily trafficked main floor in between. The county manager’s office is also on that level, and he said he feels safe with inmates above his ceiling.
Bizzell and Hester said they understand the concerns of the community, but are certain the new location would be safe.
“No one on the board of commissioners ever wants to do anything that would harm a community,” Hester said.
The site still requires approval from the Town of Smithfield, as well as a full inspection of the land including soil sampling. The county manager says construction could begin in 2018, with a 2020 completion date.