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Editorial: Sullivan County must get moving on new jail

Editorial Board • Mar 9, 2019 at 2:30 PM

Sullivan County taxpayers are paying the price for the county’s foot-dragging on building more jail cells. And the longer the county keeps kicking this can down the road, the higher the final cost.

The Sullivan County jail currently exceeds capacity by about 50 percent and five years ago nearly lost certification due to overcrowding and deficiencies found by a state inspection. To address those deficiencies, a committee was created in 2014 that ultimately recommended an outside consultant come up with a master plan for the facility.

Now, years later, that consultant has at long last been hired. When in 2017 the County Commission first asked the purchasing agent to seek proposals for a consultant, the cost was estimated at $100,000. Now, it’s $250,000. The county has known for many years that its jail would have to be expanded — or replaced — and that cost, too, keeps rising. To be fair, some of the delay has come, in part, because the commission butted heads with $140 million in school construction and renovation and other capital costs.

The consultant will help Sullivan County outline the most efficient use of the 30-plus-acre property occupied by the Blountville Justice Center — which houses the main jail, the medium-security annex, and other components of the county’s jail system — and what to do about deficiencies. The consultant is Knoxville-based Michael Brady Inc., an architectural and engineering firm that has completed, or is working on, jail and justice center projects for at least five Tennessee counties.

The bottom line is that Sullivan County will need significant additional jail space as well as the staff to maintain it. Kingsport businessman Wally Boyd headed the committee that recommended hiring a consultant and reminded members of earlier studies projecting the county ultimately needs about 24,000 square feet of space just to hold inmates, not including hallways, kitchens, laundry rooms and other components of a jail.

Boyd said the studies also showed the current main jail is inadequate in multiple areas, including its public lobby, booking area, kitchen (about one-third the size needed), laundry (about half the size needed), and medical facilities. Another key problem is the increase in recent years of female offenders. The jail presently has inadequate space for the female inmate population.

This is destined to be another big-ticket item for the county, likely costing in the neighborhood of $50 million or more, never mind annual operating costs. And regardless of what the consultant recommends, the county is years away from a solution.

Meanwhile, costs will keep on going up.

Sullivan County is fortunate that it has not been on what likely would be the losing end of a civil lawsuit because of overcrowding and that the Tennessee Corrections Institute has given it a temporary pass of sorts on that issue because it is working toward a solution. But why keep testing your luck?

No more delays. When the consultant’s report comes in, the county needs to act on it posthaste.

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