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Editorial: State should build new prison in NE Tennessee

Editorial Board • Aug 30, 2016 at 9:46 AM

Sullivan County taxpayers must be hiding their wallets. With taxpayers facing tens of millions of dollars in new schools, a study says the county also needs more jail space to house 300 inmates. Montana bid out a 300-bed jail last year: $40 million.

The study says the most costly thing for taxpayers is to do nothing. The county jail already is overcrowded, and that threatens lawsuits. The study also says overcrowding could lead to loss of state certification, which would trigger such sanctions as the loss of state funding of millions of dollars per year.

There’s another way to read that, which might be a good thing for county taxpayers.

The reason county jails in Tennessee — and in lots of states — are crowded is because states are out of prison capacity and don’t want to spend the money to build more prisons. That forces counties to house state prisoners.

They get money for that — indeed, they make a profit on housing state prisoners — but part of that cost is paid by county taxpayers, and if the state wants to decertify the Sullivan County jail and take its prisoners somewhere else, county taxpayers might not need a new jail.

That doesn’t solve the state’s problem. What will is a new prison, built right here in Northeast Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Correction consists of 14 state prisons. Ten are operated by the state and four by contract. Nine are in Middle Tennessee, three in West Tennessee, and two in East Tennessee — the Morgan County Correction Complex west of Knoxville and Northeast Correctional Complex at Mountain City in Johnson County. Three hundred offenders are located at the minimum annex site at Mountain City, and another 180 offenders who are within 10 years of their eligible release date are housed in Carter County.

The last time the state built a new prison was three years ago at Pikeville in Bledsoe County, north of Chattanooga. It was built to house 1,500 prisoners, cost $208 million, and created 425 permanent jobs.

The state says that prison is in “East Tennessee,” but anybody who’s from these parts knows East Tennessee begins where the state line turns north. And that’s a fur piece east of Chattanooga.

State prisons are at 99 percent capacity, and the department is projecting a 6,364 unmet bed demand by 2018. The state’s prison budget has skyrocketed, from $786 million in 2012 to $929 million in 2014. The largest increase is paying local governments to house state inmates in county jails. That represents nearly a quarter of the department’s budget.

The state needs new prisons, and East Tennessee should get one of them. State senator in waiting Jon Lundberg and the region’s representatives should make that a priority.

An ad hoc committee headed by Wally Boyd was created several years ago to examine long-term solutions to the overcrowded, 30-year-old Sullivan County jail.

The committee will examine the recent study and meet in the near future to consider what may be the first steps in a new jail: architectural design fees.

Even with a new state prison, the Sullivan County jail may need expansion. A new pris on will take years of design and construction. So county taxpayers likely are looking at even more long-term debt than new schools.

But unless we get more state prisons, there’ll be another committee doing the same thing in about 10 more years.

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