The McDowell County Law Enforcement Center on Spaulding Road in Marion. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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The detention facility at the McDowell County Law Enforcement Center in Marion is getting an equipment upgrade thanks to federal COVID relief money. 

Using the county’s roughly $8.8 million American Rescue Plan Act funds, McDowell County plans to purchase a full-body scanner used for detecting contraband brought into the jail by inmates during booking. 

A formal bidding process for the scanner started Jan. 26, said Karen Morgan from the McDowell County Finance Department. The county has received bids from Blairsville Pack & Ship for $159,000 and Point Security Inc. for $139,559. 

The McDowell County Board of Commissioners approved spending up to $150,000 during an October meeting after Sheriff Ricky Buchanan said the machine could prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reducing close contact during inmate pat-downs and temperature checks. 

“The sheriff has responsibility for the … safety of the staff as well as the detainees there, so what he’s looking for is to have, where possible, technology that will allow reduced contact,” McDowell County Manager Ashley Wooten said. 

“(These purchases are) taking some small measures to reduce some of the risks coming into the facility.”

Preventing COVID

Interest in a machine that could mitigate the spread of COVID-19 isn’t off base for the McDowell County jail, which adheres to several COVID protocols. 

According to Buchanan, the 27 deputies who work at the facility “are to wear a mask” and have their temperatures taken at the start of each shift. 

“Masks are also available for inmates, and we have made available opportunities for inmates to get vaccinated if they wish to be vaccinated,” he said. 

It’s unknown how effective these protocols have been, as Buchanan said the Sheriff’s Office does not have “a specific report that states how many inmates/employees have tested positive, been hospitalized or died as result of COVID.”

The McDowell County Administration Building in Marion. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

While Buchanan told commissioners a full-body scanner that takes inmates’ temperatures could minimize COVID at the jail, there’s little evidence the scanners actually stop the spread of the virus. 

The three Western North Carolina detention centers that currently use full-body scanners — Buncombe, Cherokee and Transylvania county jails — were listed as having current COVID outbreaks in a cluster report published by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Feb. 22.

Even so, McDowell County’s request for proposals for the scanner calls the machine “a new safety protocol in order to reduce health risks for detention center staff and the inmate population.”

Preventing contraband 

A full-body scanner could ensure safety from illicit drugs and weapons brought into the jail, officials say. Contraband, according to Brad Deen from the N.C. Department of Public Safety, is a “major concern” for correctional facilities. 

“Smuggled items threaten the security and safety of staff and offenders alike,” Deen said. “Overdoses have killed offenders. Bad reactions to substances have led to violence and injury. Rivalries for control of the contraband trade can become violent. 

“Contraband also poses a danger to communities outside prisons, as cellphones make it possible to manage criminal enterprises from inside prison.”

The state’s Public Safety Department does not oversee county jails; that’s left up to local governments. The department is, however, in charge of North Carolina’s prisons, which do not use full-body scanners like the one proposed for McDowell County. 

“The prison system has walk-through metal detectors at the entrances of all the prisons,” said N.C. Department of Public Safety communications officer John Bull

“Walk-through metal detectors also are in use inside some of the prisons, usually higher-custody prisons. Offenders may be required to walk through those metal detectors, and handheld metal-detector wands are in common use throughout the prison system.”

Though inmates bringing contraband into jails can pose a threat to safety, it’s unknown how much of an issue this is at the McDowell County Detention Center. 

A sign outside the fence of the detention portion of the McDowell County Law Enforcement Center in Marion announced limited access. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Capt. Shanon Smith, who works in the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office’s Criminal Investigation Division, said the department was unable to pull reports showing how often contraband has been brought into the county jail in recent years. 

“Just going off of memory, I can recall numerous charges of arrestees who have tried to smuggle contraband (drugs, weapons, cellular telephones) into our jail, but we don’t have the capability to provide you an exact number,” Smith said. 

Using ARPA for a scanner

Though a full-body scanner theoretically can mitigate COVID’s spread and prevent contraband from entering the jail, purchasing the machine with money designed to heal communities from the pandemic could elicit skepticism. 

The McDowell County government saw minimal financial impact from the pandemic, according to a 2021 audit that showed the county’s net position increasing by more than $6.5 million.  

However, that doesn’t mean many county residents are bereft of economic hardship. According to census data, McDowell County has a 15.2% poverty rate — relatively higher than the state’s rate of 12.9%.

Downtown Marion on Feb. 22, 2022. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Local governments can use ARPA funds to help low-income families impacted by the pandemic through housing, food and cash assistance programs, as outlined in the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s rules for ARPA spending.

McDowell County is using ARPA money for other initiatives, such as a $5 million water system expansion, $500 vaccine incentives for county employees and premium pay for essential workers, which totaled $83,000 as of Feb. 2, according to Finance Director Alison Bell.  

Commissioners also earmarked $100,000 for a covered picnic area at the McDowell County Recreation Center, and Wooten said the county is considering opening applications for nonprofits to secure ARPA funds.

While these expenses appear to be more in line with ARPA’s goal to heal communities from the pandemic, the purchase of a full-body scanner for the jail is equally legal, as McDowell is categorizing the purchase as an expenditure for public health — one of the four acceptable ARPA buckets outlined in U.S. Treasury’s guidelines

“Right now, we have (the scanner) under public health,” Wooten said. “There’s a subcategory for building improvements. Some of the (Treasury) guidance has changed, but that seemed to be the closest for that allocation.”

McDowell isn’t the only WNC county using ARPA for law enforcement. Jackson County is spending the federal dollars on a body camera and taser system for deputies, and Polk County’s general ARPA plans include funding for jail capital projects, jail special projects and Sheriff’s Office capital projects. 

Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said no specific projects within these categories have been determined yet.

Whether these counties could make better use of their one-time COVID recovery money is subject to opinion, but as long as the counties stay within the Treasury’s guidelines, Wooten said, no expense is wrong. 

“It’s all in how the community, which is typically reflected in governmental leadership, is reflected in (the county’s) priorities,” Wooten said. 

“And so, with something like a full-body scanner, it makes sense as far as the disease prevention and safety for someone from a detention’s perspective. For someone that says, ‘Maybe that (funding) could be used in a different way,’ that person with a different point of view is probably not going to see it the same way. It’s different priorities and perspectives.”

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.