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Tyrrell Prison Work Farm reopens, future still uncertain

After being shut down since late last year, the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm has reopened, albeit partially and with an uncertain future.

According to John Bull with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the prison was partially reopened August 5 as part of the COVID-19 response of the Division of Prisons.

“Around five dozen offenders are currently housed at the facility, and more likely will be moved into the facility in the weeks and months to come,” stated Bull, who also said he didn’t have a timetable regarding when that would happen.

Bull also stated that he “can’t discuss offender movements before they happen, but the intention at this point is to gradually build up the offender population to around 160 offenders. Staffing will be commensurate with offender population levels at the Tyrrell facility.”

Bull went on to say the reopening is “a temporary measure to gradually reduce the offender populations in other facilities to allow additional space to be set aside in those other facilities for offenders who need to be medically isolated or medically quarantined due to COVID-19.

“It is safe to say the facility has reopened in a reduced capacity for the time being due to COVID-19.”

Bull said a decision regarding the long-term future of the facility has, at this point, not been made.

Local officials have weighed in on the recent action taken to reintroduce inmates and staff to the shuttered prison facility.

“The prison was a major employer and the largest water customer of Tyrrell County. Its closure resulted in a 30% deficit in utility operational funds,” stated Tyrrell County manager David Clegg. “The loss of the approximate $25,000 monthly water revenue created a financial crisis for the county and had the state not provided funds to satisfy bond debt the county would have defaulted.

“It is Tyrrell County’s hope that the state will populate the prison to full capacity, reassign and/or hire a full, local workforce, utilize the facility’s kitchen facilities and develop work farm enterprises on its 200 acres of crop land.”

Clegg stated that the “county is appreciative of the help it received from Governor Cooper, Senator Steinburg, Rep. Goodwin, and Treasurer Falwell in championing the county’s financial and economic development interests.”

Town of Columbia manager Rhett White stated there had been prior talk of reopening the facility, but the degree had been an unknown. “We were informed more than two months ago that the prison would be reopened to some extent, but there were no specifics,” he said. “Yesterday’s [August 10] announcement that ‘several inmates’ had been moved back was welcomed news, although State officials only announced that the Tyrrell Prison was ‘temporarily’ reopened. We appreciate and encourage any and all efforts to use the facility to its fullest capacity.

“We appreciate the support and efforts of State Treasurer Dale Folwell, Sen. Bob Steinburg and Rep. Eddie Goodwin, to get this institution reopened. This facility is important to the local business community and to residents who need jobs,” continued White.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell released a statement Monday applauding the reopening of the prison.

“I appreciate the administration reopening the prison in Tyrrell County,” said Folwell. “Not only will it help the economy of the area, but it will help alleviate the overcrowding in other prisons that could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to inmates and employees of the prisons. Since the Tyrrell County work farm is one of the more modern facilities, I hope its opening will quickly be defined as ‘fully staffed and operational.’”

Folwell had previously called on the Cooper administration to pay over $300,000 in water and sewer charges to keep Tyrrell County and the Town of Columbia from defaulting on bonds taken out in 1998 to build and expand the water treatment facility and sewer lines to support the state prison facility.

“State Budget Director Charlie Perusse informed Tyrrell County Manager David Clegg by email Monday evening [June 1] that the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) identified and authorized the transfer of DPS carryforward funds that would be used as grants-in-aid to the local governments,” stated a follow-up statement from Folwell’s office after payment of funds was authorized by the state. “Of the total, $209,901 will go to Tyrrell County and $113,603 to Columbia. The assistance is expected to cover the annual debt service payments associated with the water system expansion serving the prison. Perusse directed DPS Secretary Erik Hooks to process the grants as soon as possible.”

“I’m pleased to be able to hear some good news for the folks in that area,” stated Folwell on August 10. “Whether it’s the sale of Pepsis or the building of a new home, the prison is an economic driver for the people of Tyrrell County and Columbia. Flattening the economic curve for rural North Carolina is like an ‘ant eating a ham biscuit.’ It happens one bite at a time. And this was a big bite. Hopefully, we can get them on a solid financial footing going forward.”

Folwell expressed appreciation to Steinburg, Goodwin, Clegg, Tyrrell commissioners, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners and the North Carolina League of Municipalities “for bringing attention to the area’s plight and their role in ultimately getting the facility reopened.”

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