Heavy equipment prepares a Dobson site for a new Surry County jail. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

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Editor’s note: This article is part 2 in the four-part investigative series Raising Jails, which examines how and why North Carolina counties decide to build jails, the impact of deciding to build and potential policy changes that could lead to different outcomes. This series is being produced in part through the financial backing of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Surry County has had a rough 20 years. The rural county, in many ways fortunate to have two hospitals, suffered the consequences of sky-high rates of opioid prescriptions and the epidemic that followed. 

From 1999 to 2006, the county’s jail population exploded, with rates of jail incarceration inching up ever since, despite crime rates plummeting over the same period. 

The prevalence of substance use disorders — a medical term for drug and alcohol addictions — and the reliance on incarceration as a response pushed counties like Surry into a corner. Its jail is overfull, in violation of state standards, and the law-and-order approach hasn’t solved the drug use epidemic. 

Surry is building a new jail. 

The county is also starting a new substance use intervention program. One goal is to keep many of those cells empty. 

Lt. Randy Shelton, who runs the jail in Surry, says more than 80% of people in the jail are there because of mental illness or substance abuse, in line with research in other counties and national estimates. 

In September, a detention officer monitors a bank of security screens at the Catawba County jail in Newton. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

‘If you build it, they will come’

Surry County is not alone. 

Counties across North Carolina have built — and are planning to build — jails to replace antiquated facilities and fit jail populations bursting out of the current facilities, even as jail administrators say most of the people behind bars don’t belong there and crime rates across the state have dropped 40% since 2000, according to the State Bureau of Investigation’s index of annual crime rates. 

Catawba County’s jail administrator, Capt. Nathan Fisher, said most people in his jail need treatment for mental illness or substance use disorder, not incarceration. 

But, like Surry, the county’s response was to build more jail bed space, to the tune of $33 million. 

Other counties are testing a patchwork of reforms and interventions to decrease reliance on incarceration, trying to save money without sacrificing public safety. Some counties, like Surry, are trying both. 

North Carolina counties have spent more than $1.5 billion collectively to build and maintain jails in the last 20 years, according to data from the Local Government Commission, part of the state Treasurer’s Office responsible for overseeing counties’ debt.

The sum includes 46 of the state’s 100 counties that either expanded existing jails or built new ones. That price tag does not include paying staff to run jails, which jail administration experts say is likely 10 times the construction cost.

Many counties filled their jails within a couple of years. 

Becky Cawthorne, Gaston County’s jail administrator, saw it with her own eyes after the county opened its new, bigger jail in 1999. 

“Didn’t take long, a couple years in, before you start to see: OK, if you build it, they will come,” she said. 

That’s precisely the fear of advocates like Jasmine Heiss, project director of the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, which looks at the “quiet jail boom” happening in the nation’s rural counties. 

In many urban areas, jail incarceration rates are actually going down. In many rural areas, though, the rates of jailing are increasing, and the number of people held in rural jails has surpassed that of people held in large urban jails. 

Rural-urban incarceration divide 

Building jails threatens to perpetuate the cycle of ever-increasing incarceration without addressing the problems that land people in jails in the first place, advocates say. Jails fill the void when there is no other way to access social services like medical treatment, a refrain from both advocates and county officials across the state. 

“Particularly in rural counties that have sort of collapsed most of their treatment infrastructure into jails, without … a continuity of care, it becomes the only way to access meaningful treatment,” Heiss said. 

In Surry, it’s too late for alternatives that could avoid jail construction entirely. The money has been allocated, and the earth has been cleared.

The existing jail has been over capacity for years. Part of the jail was built in 1974. Renovations from the early 2000s added beds in an open bunking system that is more dangerous for staff, Shelton said. 

Overcrowding in jails across North Carolina exacerbates these kinds of problems and poses a threat to the safety of incarcerated people and staff. 

But activists elsewhere in the state say other counties still have a choice. A monthslong organizing effort in Haywood County culminated in residents presenting county commissioners with an alternative budget, one that doesn’t spend upward of $20 million on jail expansion. 

Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead talks with county commissioners during an Oct. 4 meeting in Waynesville. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Commissioners didn’t allocate the money for construction this year, which the organizers hailed as a win, but that’s because the county is still waiting on geological studies and land-use permits before it can move forward, County Manager Bryant Morehead said. Haywood still needs more jail beds, according to Morehead. 

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, along with Morehead and county commissioners, is seeking to expand the jail, the county’s second major jail construction project in 20 years.

Down Home NC, a progressive advocacy organization focused on rural communities, is coordinating with a group of residents who say the money is better spent on school counselors, treatment for addiction or affordable housing.

The projected cost of jail expansion is $16.4 million, before interest on the debt or adjustment for the increase in construction costs in the last year, a significant investment for a county with a total annual budget of $109 million.

But some jails have been successful in keeping beds empty, mostly in urban counties. A decade ago, Mecklenburg County had filled its jail and was faced with the possibility of having to build a new jail that would cost more than $100 million, said Jessie Smith, professor of law and government at UNC Chapel Hill. 

Instead, the county reformed how it used the jail and whom it kept behind bars, now running a jail at half capacity. 

When Orange County decided to build a new jail to replace the structure built in 1925 and added onto since then, county officials decided to increase their investment in diversion programs to keep people who are not public safety threats out of jail. 

These patchwork reforms may well be why North Carolina, in line with the rest of the country, is seeing a divergence in jail incarceration rates between rural and urban areas. 

Most urban counties, after enacting reforms, are seeing the number of people in their jails stay steady or decrease, even as populations rise. 

But most rural counties are seeing their rates go up, creating a difference in the enactment of justice, depending on where someone may live, and creating two different futures for these counties. 

Surry is one of several North Carolina counties to straddle that line. 

Charlotte Reeves, Surry County’s substance abuse community outreach specialist, stands on a sidewalk in downtown Mt. Airy in September. Anthony Crider / Carolina Public Press

A personal history 

If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone, Charlotte Reeves said. She came from a caring and supportive family, had a college degree and was a civil engineer. 

Still, she fell into drug use that led to incarceration on a string of larcenies and traffic offenses. She stole in order to buy drugs, she said. Her first attempts of rehabilitation were successful for a few months, then a couple of years, but she relapsed, then stole again. 

Reeves left state supervision in early 2019, this time ending for good a 15-year cycle, she said. 

She now serves as the lead community outreach worker for Surry County’s substance use response team. Her job is to meet people — after an overdose puts them in the emergency room or possession lands them in jail — and help connect them to treatment. 

Reeves is eager for the new jail to be built, she said. No place exists in the current jail for programming, meaning no way to connect people in the jail to treatment or job opportunities or any of the services the substance use recovery program offers.

Jail never helped her, Reeves said. While it was one place that allowed her parents to know where she was, there was never any programming, she said. She hopes she can provide more opportunities to people in the jail now, she said. 

But bigger, better jails to help reform people have never lived up to the ideal, Heiss said. The safety, extra space and better conditions don’t last, she said. 

There’s also scant evidence that jail programs have ever helped improve substance use outcomes. 

Rather, research shows that incarceration, even short stints of a couple of days, increases the risk of overdose and death on release, especially for opioid use. 

Amanda Hughett, a legal scholar and criminal justice historian at the University of Illinois Springfield, said jails are incompatible with public health. 

But to the extent jails exist, counties should provide robust services, said Judah Schept, a professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University. The trick is to avoid “carceral humanism,” he said, where governments seek to solve social ills through incarceration. 

The existing Surry County jail in Dobson has faced problems with overcrowding and work on a replacement is underway. Anthony Crider / Carolina Public Press

Surry’s future 

The head of Surry’s substance use recovery project, Mark Willis, knows the barriers to providing effective programming in a jail, he said. Still, his plan is to offer services wherever he can. Changing the systems that exist is not in his power. 

He has to take the opportunities in front of him. In 2022, that will mean offering treatment in the new jail. 

Right now, he can’t get in. The jail has been over its “operational capacity,” calculated at roughly 80% of the total beds filled since at least 2016, the earliest year for which the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services retains data.

Since 2018, Surry has been over capacity, with jail cells meant for eight holding 12 people, Shelton said. The dormitory areas built for 15 are sleeping 25 or 30, he said. 

While Willis’ team hopes to reduce the number of people who come in and out of jail, it might take five years or more for that impact to take hold. The jail can’t wait another five years for that effect to kick in, Shelton said. 

Every month this year, Surry County has averaged more people in its jail per day than it has beds. From June through August, the county averaged 187 people for a 125-bed jail, and Surry typically sends a dozen people to be housed by other counties, Shelton said.

The county has never dropped below capacity for its monthly population average, not even at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surry is one of 22 counties this year that have averaged higher jail populations than beds over an entire month.  

The county has also tried court remedies, Shelton said. It has almost doubled the number of people it releases while they are awaiting trial. Surry releases people arrested for nonviolent, low-level felonies. And it keeps almost no one with misdemeanor charges. 

Surry County Manager Chris Knopf recognizes the imbalance between how much the county is spending on jail construction and staffing. But he hopes to shift that over the next 20 years, he said. 

Next year, North Carolina will start distributing money from its $750 million share of a legal settlement with several opioid drug manufacturers. The money will go to substance use disorder prevention and recovery, Knopf said, and will pay for Willis’ program. 

If that promise holds true, a chance exists that in another 20 years, Surry won’t be looking to expand its jail beds again.

Jordan Wilkie

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. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.