Hawkins County jail plans still not approved by fire marshal

Jeff Bobo • May 7, 2007 at 11:18 AM

ROGERSVILLE - The architect of Hawkins County's proposed $12.8 million jail and justice center will have to correct 14 problems identified by the state fire marshal's office before the plans for the project are approved.

During a meeting of the Hawkins County Commission's Public Buildings Committee on Monday afternoon some members grumbled once again about how long it has taken for any progress to take place on the jail and justice center project.

The project was approved for funding by the county commission in November 2005, and since then commissioners have been waiting for the final drawings so the construction bids can be advertised.

The jail/justice center project was discussed during Monday's meeting and one member of the Public Buildings Committee asked why the county architect Tony Moore didn't attend a meeting and update commissioners on his progress.

"He is working on some information that has come back from the fire marshal on our jail plans," Lee replied. "He's making resolutions to 14 findings, but he told me this is the first time he's ever seen one come from the fire marshal with everything listed on one page. Most of those, he said, were pretty minor - glass doors we had here or there weren't thick enough and things like that."

Lee added that when Moore makes changes to the plans as directed by the fire marshal the drawings will have to be returned to the fire marshal for review again. Assuming the fire marshal approves the plans the second time around they must then be submitted to the Tennessee Department of Corrections for approval.

Lee said he cannot predict a timeline when these approvals will be made and the county can advertise for bids on the project.

Commissioner Fred Montgomery who sits on the Public Building Committee reiterated a sentiment he's expressed in the past regarding how long it's taken for the architectural plans to be finalized.

"I think we're all a little bit anxious about the matter when we read in the paper where neighboring counties can build a massive school in the time it takes us to get ready to build a jail," Montgomery said. "It's embarrassing. And every day this drags out we're going to see inflation of the price."

Montgomery also mentioned that deadline penalties and incentives should be written into future architectural contracts. Several other commissioners voiced their agreement.

The new jail and justice center project was started in 2005 after state jail inspection reports showed overcrowding and poor conditions at the existing jail.

A deadline of June 2007 for completion of the jail was reported at the time, although the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI), which conducts jail inspections for the state, told the Times-News on Monday it is not aware of any formal deadline.

TCI assistant director Peggy Sawyer did say, however, that the consequences for failure to have the new jail in operation by the time TCI conducts its 2007 Hawkins County Jail inspection could be decertification of the existing Hawkins County Jail. Those inspections are conducted without warning.

But decertification doesn't mean a jail will be shut down. Sawyer said only a federal judge and fire marshal have the authority to shut down a jail.

But decertification can affect a jail's insurance and make the jail more vulnerable to lawsuits.

"When we decertify a jail that is reported to the fire marshal and the insurance companies, and what usually happens is a jail loses its insurance," Sawyer said. "And, when a jail is decertified a jail loses it's defensibility when it's sued. More than likely you see a jail sued when it's decertified because we have to say in court that it has been decertified."

Sawyer said that the Hawkins County Jail was certified following the 2006 inspection based on the fact that plans are under way for construction of the new jail.

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