Caldwell County may oppose closing youth prison in Morganton

Apr. 16, 2013 @ 07:53 AM

The Caldwell County commissioners are considering supporting Burke County's plea for the state to abandon plans to close a youth prison employing more than 350 people, including dozens from Caldwell County.

The commissioners decided Monday night to postpone a vote on the issue, saying they need more justification before making a formal commitment.

Western Youth Institution in Morganton is slated to close in January under Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget for fiscal 2013-14.  Cuts to the state Department of Public Safety would result in the closure of a total of five prisons in rural areas across the state.

Clay Bollinger, the vice chairman of the board of commissioners, said the delay was warranted because of questions about the capacity of the youth prison and whether its closure would bring an end to educational and job training programs seen by many as crucial to helping young inmates assimilate into society.

“I just think you gotta question these things when they come up,” he said.

Burke County Manager Bryan Steen in recent weeks has called nearby counties for support.

“If you don’t put up resistance, you can be sure (the state) is going to do what they’ve asked to do,” he said in a phone interview.

Western Youth employs more than 360 people, 53 of whom are from Caldwell County. The majority are from Burke County.  

Johnnie Carswell of the Burke County Board of Commissioners said in an interview that he was “a little shocked” at the proposal to close the youth prison. Carswell is a corrections officer trainer at the prison, where he has worked for the past 20 years, and has since sought support from legislators and prison officials to prevent what he said would “devastating blow” to his county, where the unemployment rate hangs at nearly 12 percent.

The pending closure also is seen as a threat to the outcome of the more than 750 inmates, all of whom are between 13 and 22 years old.

“If you don’t do anything to try to straighten out these people, in this point in their life, you could lose them for their whole life, “ he said, referring to vocational classes and a GED program at the prison run by Western Piedmont Community College. Treatment and therapy services for drug and alcohol abuse and training for jobs in forestry and construction also are offered there.

The state is determining where to transfer the inmates. The Foothills Correctional Institution, also in Morganton, which houses nearly 950 inmates ages 18 to 25, is expected to take in at least some.

The population of Western Youth grew in 1992 after the closure of another correctional facility in Burke County.

In an unrelated vote, the commissioners approved plans by Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute to build an extra wing housing classrooms designed for law enforcement and EMS training courses. The college plans to tap capital outlay and reserve funds to pay for the $1.6 million construction project to build the more-than-8,600-square-foot building.