Budget cuts threaten Gates prison

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Jackie and Bill Phillips are two people who are definitely worried about the possibility that the state may close the Gates County Correctional Center, but there are others who are also concerned and for good reason.

Phillips and her husband, Bill, are founders of the Gates County Bicycle Ministry, a program that supplies bikes for the underprivileged children of Gates County. Right now, they are faced with the monumental task of getting 2,000 bikes refurbished for the people of Indonesia who lost everything in the tsunami a couple of months ago.

In the past, they have relied upon the inmates at the correctional center to work the bikes over until they look like they just came out of Wal-Mart. If the prison closes, however, Phillips’ bikes will remain right where they are now, parked in front and around their home.

But, that’s not all that will be lost through the jail closure. The county’s schools will also lose out as well as Down East Health and Rehabilitation Center, the summer school program, the Hertford County Jail, and other organizations like Meals on Wheels.

The minimum security prisoners at Gates County Correctional Center each year plant a three-acre garden that not only supplements the food cost at the road camp, but also saves the state an average of $20,000 a year. Inmates are responsible for cultivating the soil, planting, fertilizing, watering, chopping and harvesting the crops. Along with furnishing massive amounts of vegetables to other agencies, the inmates freeze the vegetables for their own tables.

Growing their own vegetables means the facility spends less on feeding the inmates, proving that it is an economical move that also helps inmates learn work ethics and develop a sense of accomplishment and pride.

I was surprised to learn from the Superintendent Bob Jones that the inmates also perform many other chores for the county. We see them alongside the roadways, cleaning up debris, but they also work for Hertford and Perquimans counties and Albemarle Plantation.

If the Gates County facility closes, look at the loss with respect to services and goods provided by the inmates. Then, consider what it will cost the county to house the inmates in other facilities.

The state is looking at the possibility of housing two inmates in a cell, but what kinds of serious problems would that force upon us? They are also looking at paying the counties for the backlog of prisoners. Now, what kind of sense does that make when we have a suitable facility here that is paying for some of its own operational costs by saving the county money in a number of ways?

The state is also considering adjustments to the Sentencing Act to reduce the average time served for crimes committed. Is that right?

Gates County’s Correctional Center was established in 1936, and did not face closure until 1992. It managed to skate by that year, and remained operational until the state closed it July 31, 2002. The state closed it down then as a means of cutting expenses until a budget was approved by the General Assembly. They reopened the prison again in October 2002; a smart move in my opinion.

With all the good that the 96 inmates do, we can only hope that the General Assembly will give the facility another reprieve. After all, who’s going to assemble all those bikes headed to Indonesia and Christmas is coming and more bikes for the children of Gates County will be needed then. And again, that’s not even taking into consideration all the foods and services the inmates provide to the county.

In the past, they have built foot bridges in 18 spots on the 10 miles of hiking trails at Merchant’s Millpond State Park, and they did it without the use of power tools since there is no electricity in the wild.

It seems to me that keeping our inmates productive while saving government agencies vital tax dollars must be a win-win situation. The fact that the community work program is such a success in Gates County should serve as proof positive that the Correctional Center should remain open.