Thursday, March 30, 2023

Pender County’s jail is overcrowded and aging. There are no plans to replace it

Area jails must balance their inmate populations on a number of factors. Oftentimes, this requires outsourcing inmate housing and personnel work to neighboring counties.

Pender County's jail is out of date and overcrowded. Neighboring counties have been taking more and more inmates from Pender, in a complicated 'game of chess,' that's both risky and expensive. (Port City Daily photo | File)
Pender County’s jail is out of date and overcrowded. Neighboring counties have been taking more and more inmates from Pender, in a complicated ‘game of chess,’ that’s both risky and expensive. (Port City Daily photo | File)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Pender County’s jail is overcrowded. At 92 beds, the county has one of the lowest capacities to house inmates in southeastern North Carolina.

This week, Pender County Commissioners approved sending its inmates to neighboring counties for $525,000. New Hanover, Brunswick, Sampson and Onslow County Sheriff’s Offices each agreed to house a share of Pender County’s overflow of inmates. 

RELATED: New Hanover County report finds jails, emergency department ‘ill-equipped’

“The shuffling never ends,” Capt. Samenthia Jones said. 

As the jail’s administrator for 21 years, Jones said a new jail is needed. Built in 1978, the detention facility started with 30 beds and has added only 62 more over the course of three different renovations.

“What we need is a new facility,” Jones said. “We need a new facility with maximum, medium security beds.”

An old jail

The staff at the Pender County regularly jail find themselves ping-ponging inmates back and forth among counties.

When an inmate who’s being housed in another county bonds out, they have to be transported back to Pender County for the process to be completed.

“You do the best you can; you do the best to make it work,” Jones said. “That’s what we do, we make it work.”

A new jail would improve safety, Jones said. The majority of Pender County’s offenders – inmates convicted of violent offenses or felonies – do not classify for the jail’s 40-man, minimum security dormitory.

“You’re talking an old facility that was built in ’78 that you have to find the parts for from time to time,” Jones said. “They no longer make jails like these anymore.”

Tammy Proctor, spokesperson for the county, said commissioners have discussed the issue but do not have active plans to construct a new facility.

“It’s a serious need,” Proctor said.

Game of chess

Every day, jail administrators negotiate the temporary trade of inmates.

As inmate populations fluctuate, counties must budget ahead for expected shuffling. Funds to outsource inmate housing were already accounted for in Pender County’s budget, according to County Manager, Randell Woodruff

“It would make all of our lives a lot easier.”

-Pender COunty Jail Administrator Capt. Samenthia Jones, on the prospect of a new detention facility

Still, even with funding, the cross-county trades are getting increasingly complicated: Sampson County is housing Gatson and Johnston County inmates, while Onslow County is housing for Pamlico County, Jones said. With other counties filling the beds Pender County used to rely on, Jones said her job is challenging.

“Now that you have counties coming in from further away, it’s very difficult,” she said. “Brunswick is housing, I believe, the juvenile population for New Hanover County, but they were gracious enough to squeeze some people in for me today,” Jones said.

Capacity of local facilities

(Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

So how does the capacity of Pender’s jail — and the challenges faced there — stack up relative to neighboring counties?

Lt. Jerry Brewer, spokesperson for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, said managing inmate populations is like playing chess, even for a larger facility. New Hanover County’s Detention Division can house up to 617 inmates, including 70 beds dedicated for federal inmates.

“We’re one of the larger [facilities] in the area,” Brewer said.

New Hanover County’s jail regularly houses and transports inmates charged with federal crimes. With the United States District Courthouse located in downtown Wilmington, the consistent presence of federal inmates can impact the arrangement of the jail’s population.

“Due to the fact that we house federal inmates, we may not have as many open beds as some of the other agencies around us,” Brewer said.

Population Jail beds Beds per 10,000 people
New Hanover County 227,198 617 22.7
Brunswick County 130,897 444 33.9
Pender County 60,958 92 27.1

*Population based on 2017 U.S. Census estimates.

Housing classifications, including which and how many inmates are allowed in a particular cell, guide inmate populations. Factors including gender and crime committed can prevent a jail from filling every bed it has.

“We have a whole unit called classification,” Brewer said. “It changes every day.”

In 2004, New Hanover County’s jail opened off Blue Clay Road, later expanding in 2007 to include more beds. Before the $55 million upgrade, inmates were housed downtown on 4th Street.

At 92 beds, Pender County’s overcrowded jail has – in theory – more room per capita than New Hanover County’s facility. Pender County’s jail maintains approximately 27 beds per 10,000 residents, while New Hanover County has approximately 22.7 beds available per 10,000 residents.

Brunswick County decommissioned its old 75-bed jail in 2005 and opened a new 196-bed facility. By 2008, the new facility jail had become overcrowded. A second phase was constructed, more than doubling capacity to 444 beds, according to Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office website.

Today, its jail has more beds per population than New Hanover and Pender County.

Personnel gets shuffled, too

While inmates are reassigned, detention officers can also be sent to surrounding counties.

Brewer said recently a group of New Hanover County inmates was temporarily housed at the Brunswick County Sherriff’s Office detention center. To save additional costs, New Hanover County detention officers accompanied inmates while in Brunswick County.

“We sent our personnel down there to work,” Brewer said. “Yes [Sheriff John Ingram] was housing them, but our personnel was watching them, which helped us save on the money somewhat.”

Though funds are budgeted to account for frequent personnel shifts, Brewer said sometimes, the Sheriff’s Offices will ask for more.

Pender County faces similar challenges. If Pender County were to construct a new facility, Jones said it would cut on transports her detention officers make every day.

It would make all of our lives a lot easier,” Jones said.

Send tips to Johanna Ferebee at or follow Johanna on Twitter @j__ferebee

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