Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan hopes to break ground on a $38 million jail expansion within a month and see the project finished in 2022, putting a timetable on one of the county’s long-term goals.
The project was put on the backburner for months after the original bid came in closer to $50 million, followed by the emergence of COVID-19. Newly drafted plans for the expansion include the same additions (400 new beds, expanded food service and program space and a larger sally port for prisoner entry) with less total square footage.
Bryan said the Wilson County Commission’s move to approve bonds for the project in December 2020 comes at a perfect time for his staff. The Wilson County Jail’s population had dropped off sharply during the early stages of the pandemic but recently began rising again.
“In October and November, we started seeing the numbers in the jail as far as the population start easing back up,” he said. “Sometime in the first part of November, we were at pre-corona numbers. We’re averaging right around 400 to 420 population now, and we’ve got 460 beds, so that allows us 40 beds to maneuver people around. You’ve got to have room to maneuver, and we’re at the point where it’s getting difficult to do that.”
The jail’s population trending upward coincides with a pattern of growth and development in Wilson County.
“We’d gone from 80,000 people in the county to 140,000 in a short period of time, so our jail population also increased,” Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said. “Over a year back, we knew the population in the jail was rising and were making plans to do something about it.”
According to Bryan, a major struggle when managing a crowded jail is the conflict that can rise between inmates. That means staff has to account for any tensions between them to try and prevent fights from breaking out.
“Say you have 15 people moving into your house, you’re going to have some differences,” he said. “That’s the problem we have. A lot more fights, altercations in the jail because of the overcrowding. Our corrections officers are really pushed, and it’s difficult on them. It’s a safety concern any time the jail gets overpopulated.”
Bryan said a higher population means more vandalism, more work for the maintenance crew and a greater impact on the budget. He expects the expansion’s design to help cut costs as the jail prepares to hire on new corrections officers around 2022.
“It’s tied into our existing facility, and it’ll be connected as far as technology and everything into our existing facility,” he said. “So that’s a big thing that saves money in the long run … we are going to have to look at extra personnel, but in saying that, when we designed this facility that we’re building we’d done it to utilize the least number of staff. We haven’t got the numbers yet, but there will be an addition to our staff at some point.”
An adequate facilities tax increase passed in 2019 is still projected as the project’s primary funding mechanism. In the years to come, the county intends to make further use of the jail property for its court systems.
“We’d purchased the six acres and church building behind the jail,” Hutto said. “We’re planning to use that for a centrally located judicial center to bring all the court systems under one roof … and that will free up the College Hills space as a one-stop shop for our builders where they can visit the stormwater and codes departments, things like that.”
A time frame and cost estimate for that project remains unclear, but it is not part of the $43.5 million the commission authorized in December. With $38 million projected to go toward the jail expansion, the remainder is being used for two new WEMA stations at Clemmons Road and Central Pike in Mt. Juliet.
Hutto said those stations will centralize Mt. Juliet’s emergency responders so they can reach locations across the county more quickly. The goal is to have those projects bid, designed and started by May, and they would take roughly a year to complete.
Together, the WEMA stations and jail expansion are aimed at increasing safety within the county, and Bryan said the bonds are an important step.
“I’ve seen counties all across the state that are fighting today, doing everything they can do to get a new addition or new jail,” Bryan said. “Those counties are really putting themselves in some liability, and Wilson County has really stood up. They’ve been responsible, they know the need and they showed that at December’s commission meeting.”