Feds to move inmates from Mecklenburg jail. Millions of dollars will go with them.

The federal government this week is expected to relocate dozens of inmates from the staff-depleted Mecklenburg County jail — a move that could bring the facility’s population closer in line with a state safety recommendation but cost millions in lucrative federal reimbursements.

As of Monday morning, the jail held 282 federal detainees, or 22% of the overall adult inmate population of 1,244.

In the coming weeks, a portion of the federal contingent is expected to be moved to the Irwin County Detention Center in south Georgia, some 335 miles from Charlotte, according to officials with the federal courts of the Western District of North Carolina.

While the details remain highly fluid, one court official expects up to two-thirds of the federal detainees to be relocated, costing the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office a significant portion of the millions it receives each month for housing them.

In response to questions from the Observer, the Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Monday acknowledging that “a number of federal detainees” will be moved from the jail this week. It also said it had “anticipated the decline in the federal population and made the necessary fiscal adjustments.” The statement did not offer further details.

The inmate transfer comes in part at the request of Sheriff’s Office, which is under a state mandate to correct safety violations at the jail by mid-April.

In addition, the sheriff’s office continues to be reimbursed for federal inmate services it no longer intends to provide, one federal official said, leading the federal courts to search for a cheaper alternative.

All of the jail’s current state safety infractions are tied to a staffing crisis that erupted during the two-year pandemic. As of this month, the jail had 179 vacancies, or more than 21% of the detention center’s total jobs.

In December, an inspector with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services told Sheriff Garry McFadden in a letter that the jail had too many inmates and too few detention officers to operate safely.

The inspector, Chris Wood, strongly recommended that the inmate population be cut to under 1,000. At the time, the count was more than 1,400.

A three-month effort by the Mecklenburg courts and McFadden led to incremental decreases in the inmate numbers. Several dozen prisoners already have been moved to other jails.

The relocation of a significant number of federal inmates would be the jail’s biggest depopulation move to date. But it will come at a cost.

Under an agreement with the Western District courts, the Sheriff’s Office is reimbursed $160 a day to provide each federal inmate with food, housing, transportation, medical care and other services. In the past, the payback has reached $33 million annually, said Frank Johns, the federal clerk of court.

As the federal inmate population has dropped at the jail since January, so has the reimbursement. With 500 federal prisoners, for example, the monthly payment would total about $2.4 million. At 282 prisoners, the current number, it falls to some $1.35 million.

If some inmates leave for Georgia, their reimbursements go with them, Johns said Sunday.

“This is an example of ‘Be careful what you ask for and then you get it,’ “ Johns said. “I worked in (Mecklenburg) county government for 10 years, and $33 million is a lot of money to say goodbye to.”

Acting U.S. Marshal Chris Edge declined to say on Monday how many federal inmates will be relocated or how much federal money will be redirected to the Irwin County Sheriff’s Office. He also would not commit to a schedule for the transfer — saying the emphasis will be on safety, not speed.

Chief federal Probation Officer Greg Forest, a former top U.S. marshal for the Western District, estimated that two-thirds of Mecklenburg’s current federal inmate population will be sent south. That would bring the jail population much closer to the state target. But it would cost the sheriff’s office millions of dollars in reimbursements, he said.

According to Forest, the transfer is being made not only to help McFadden’s jail reduce its population, but also because the Sheriff’s Office continues to be reimbursed for federal prisoner services it no longer intends to provide.

“It’s pure economics. There are no hard feelings,” Forest said. “If you say you’re not going to do something anymore, we’ll go find someone who will.”

Irwin County, for example, now will be responsible for transporting inmates to Charlotte or elsewhere in the Western District for upcoming court hearings, Forest said. The facility is about a 5 1/2-hour drive from Charlotte.

Edge said the federal marshals looked for closer alternatives but did not find any area facilities able to handle a large scale inmate transfer. He said the marshals did not want “to overburden” local jails that already have taken federal prisoners.

The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., about 200 miles south of Atlanta, has a checkered past. The facility is county owned but for a time was operated by a private prison company as a detention center for immigration cases.

According to the Washington Post, the facility remains under federal investigation for how it treated detainees. Former female prisoners have sued over “overly aggressive” gynecological treatment they received.

Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed its last detainees from Irwin County and let its contract expire. The facility is now operated by the Irwin County Sheriff’s Department.

Meanwhile, members of the legal community learned about the upcoming relocation during a remote meeting Monday with the federal courts. Some already are critical of having clients moved two states away.

“This is unprecedented,” said one prominent Charlotte attorney, who practices in the Western District courts and asked not be identified because of the politics involved.

“It’s going to cause a substantial disruption. It really is.”

How long the new housing plan will last is unknown. According to Johns, if the Mecklenburg jail’s staffing returns to normal levels, so might the federal inmates — and their reimbursements.

“It all comes down to whether the jail can accept inmates. Until it does, I guess we can consider this the new normal,” he said. “I know they’re trying, but it must be hard finding a good corrections officer.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Staff Writer Will Wright contributed.