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Battle lines drawn to keep prison open

WINTON – In a show of solidarity, local and national union leaders came together here Monday night to lobby for the protection of 400 jobs at Rivers Correctional Institution (RCI).

However, without a last-minute reprieve from President Joe Biden, his Executive Order (EO) aimed at eliminating the use of privately operated criminal detention facilities will cause RCI to close on March 31.

The Hertford County Board of Commissioners has already thrown their support behind the effort to keep RCI open. Late last month, the commissioners approved two measures: a services contract with The GEO Group, Inc. and an intergovernmental agreement with the United States Marshals Service (USMS). The latter will use RCI to house males, females, and juveniles charged with federal offenses and detained while awaiting trial, those who have been sentenced and are awaiting designation and transport to a Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) facility, and those who are awaiting a hearing on their immigration status or deportation.

In turn, the county will contract with GEO, the current owners of RCI, to provide secure custody of the USMS short-term detainees.

But that plan fell under broad scope of Biden’s order. That’s where the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) stepped in to lobby the White House to reverse course. Two NFFE members – Kristen Fajardo, a RCI employee who serves as president of the Local Lodge CE-4, and Roosevelt Littlejohn Jr., the NFFE’s National Business Representative – each addressed the county commissioners at their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

“In two weeks, 400 [RCI] employees will be unemployed through no fault of their own,” said Fajardo. “For 20 years, our members have loyally served this community and The GEO Group. The GEO Group provided good jobs. Our members were able to buy homes, send their kids to school, keep their families healthy, pay their taxes, and be productive members of this community. On April 1 this will come to an end.

“[Joe Biden] has said that our workplace must be shut down,” she continued. “Because of this action, not only will these families be devastated, but the community will be devastated as well, all because of ideological reasons where some people believe that contracted services should not exist despite the hard work of our members.”

Fajardo said she reached out to U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield for help.

“He has agreed to stand up to help save our jobs and our community. I urge this commission to encourage him to keep his promise and save our jobs. We need your help,” Fajardo stressed.

Littlejohn advised the county commissioners that the NFFE met with Butterfield this week and that Randy Erwin, the NFFE’s National President, followed up with a letter to the congressman.

“Four hundred people will be unemployed on April 1 if we don’t act quickly,” Littlejohn noted.

He added that the NFFE is not at odds with Biden about the overall effect of the EO, but did say private facilities such as RCI fit the mission of the USMS.

“We believe that the Rivers facility can continue to operate by contracting with the U.S. Marshal’s Service,” Littlejohn said. “This is not a contracted services issue; it’s about giving the U.S. Marshals the ability to carry out their mission by using the Rivers facility.”

He noted that mission is considerably different than a criminal detention facility as described in Biden’s EO.

“The EO addresses long term criminal detention facilities; the U.S. Marshals secure and transport prisoners from arrest to incarceration. They don’t house prisoners long-term. They don’t have facilities to detain individuals. They must have facilities in place like Rivers.”

Like Fajardo, Littlejohn encouraged the county commissioners to reach out to Butterfield to urge him to keep Rivers operational through a contract with the USMS.

In a follow-up with Littlejohn on Thursday, he told the R-C News-Herald that the meeting with Butterfield was productive.

“We pray for common sense and the history of our dedicated service will win over political hysteria. We believe that the President will come to our support,” Littlejohn said. “We are waiting to hear back from Congressman Butterfield by close of business Friday before we pursue a court remedy [a temporary restraining order to keep RCI open as the issue is debated further].”

In a March 17 letter, Fajardo stated to her local NFFE members that, “Butterfield pledged he will do everything in his power to protect our families. He made it clear, however, he played no part in the development or execution of the Presidential Executive Order that prohibits the Department of Justice from contracting with private prisons.

“Congress had no hand in the decision, so he can’t ensure the outcome, but he guarantees he will do everything he can to protect our jobs – going to President Biden if necessary,” she added in her letter.

One day earlier (March 16), Erwin sent a letter to Butterfield stating that Biden’s EO is currently being interpreted to prohibit the USMS from entering into intergovernmental agreements with state and municipal government entities that contract with privately-operated

facilities.

“We strongly object to this interpretation for the following reasons: 1) the purpose and the use of the privately-operated facilities by USMS is entirely distinct from the use of private prisons used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons; 2) the loss of the use of the private detention facilities is not a safe and logistically viable solution; and 3) the closure of the private detention facilities will result in thousands of hard-working Americans losing their good jobs during one of the most difficult chapters in American history. We are currently urging the White House to reconsider this interpretation and not expand the scope of the EO to include USMS.”

For proof of the harm the EO will cause, Erwin cited a USMS memo, dated Feb. 10, that said the loss of these private detention facilities would be detrimental to USMS districts that currently rely on such facilities. The letter also cited the lack of beds needed to accommodate the more than 23,000 USMS detainees.

“Because the USMS does not have the statutory authority to own or operate detention facilities, the use of nonfederal detention space has become integral to [our] mission to house prisoners pending adjudication,” the USMS memo said.

Erwin’s letter went on to say that the USMS generally holds detainees within 50 miles of courthouses.

“If privately-operated detention space is eliminated, that standard would become a thing of the past,” Erwin wrote. “Detainees could frequently be held 100 miles or more from courthouses. This would place a new burden on USMS of having to transport detainees long distances, which is both dangerous and could easily cost $100 million per year – resources that could be better spent elsewhere.”

Erwin said the imminent devastating impact of this interpretation of the EO will soon be felt at RCI and the communities from where its employees live.

“Our members and their families have expressed to us their fears, concerns, anger and resentment at their impending layoffs due to this EO interpretation,” Erwin’s letter stated. “The same will happen shortly after in 16 additional facilities, with thousands of more layoffs across the country soon to follow. It will be truly agonizing to watch.”

He closed his letter to Butterfield by saying, “We believe President Biden has made good on his campaign promises regarding private prisons when he signed the EO. We believe this EO interpretation to include USMS in its application is out-of-step with the core values and policy objectives of this Administration. We hope you will join us in encouraging the White House to reconsider its position on this harmful EO interpretation, and for the Administration to do so expeditiously given the imminent closure of the Winton facility at the end of this month.”

Located just west of Winton off US 158, RCI opened in 2001 and operated under an original 10-year contract with the FBOP.

Under the terms of that contract, RCI would house up to 1,450 BOP inmates from the Washington, DC area.

That contract was renewed in 2011.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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