Hawkins County sheriff believes jail will be decertified

Jeff Bobo • Jul 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE - The Hawkins County Jail will likely be decertified after it is inspected later this month, Sheriff Roger Christian said Monday.

Although jail population had been down late last year and early this year, the latest circuit court sentencing sessions over the past two months have replenished the jail population to back above capacity - probably for good.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 79 inmates in the jail, which is 18 above the 30-year-old jail's maximum capacity. Christian said he expects the jail to be decertified on grounds of overpopulation and insufficient progress on the new jail.

The jail population was closer to 100 when it achieved recertification by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) following an inspection in October 2005.

That certification was approved on the condition that the proposed new Hawkins County Jail - to be located in Rogersville's old Kmart building - be up and running by July 2007. Construction of the new jail inside that old building has not even begun as of yet.

"We'll get a visit from the jail inspector sometime later this month, and we'll probably get decertified," Christian told the Times-News Monday. "When you're overcrowded it just creates so many other problems, and we just don't have the adequate square footage for the number of inmates. Our capacity is 61, and we're way over that right now.

"It doesn't mean the jail is going to be closed down, but we're not going to be certified."

As the TCI told the Times-News earlier this year, only a federal judge can order a jail closed down. Although there is a pending federal lawsuit against the Hawkins County Jail for overcrowding and other issues, there is no indication that closure of the jail will be ordered anytime soon.

The main impact of losing TCI certification is that the jail will become more susceptible to lawsuits. TCI officials have acknowledged that lawsuit complaints made against an uncertified jail are more likely to be found credible.

Jail population was at or below capacity late last year and early this year, and there was grumbling among county commissioners that the new 232-bed jail and its $12.8 million price tag weren't needed.

Christian said that lower jail population can likely be attributed to the election of a new circuit judge who postponed some cases while he was getting acclimated to the office. During the May and June circuit court sentencing sessions, the judge got caught back up, and now the jail population is on the rise again.

At its high water mark in 2005, the jail population was around 120. Lately it's averaging around 80.

"When you've got that many inmates, we can't segregate prisoners like we ought to," Christian said. "We've got some people we need to isolate, and we're extremely limited in where we can isolate them. It's an old facility and time to get a new one."

The architectural plans for the new jail were turned over to the state fire marshal for review in April. In May, the fire marshal returned the plans to the architect to correct several findings.

County Mayor Crockett Lee said Monday that the plans have been back in the hands of the fire marshal for about three weeks, and he's hoping to hear soon that they've been approved.

There's no way of knowing when the fire marshal will complete the plans, but if and when they are approved they will be forwarded to the Tennessee Department of Corrections for approval.

If the plans are approved by TDOC, the project can be advertised for construction bids. In November 2005, the Hawkins County Commission approved issuing a $12.8 million bond that will pay for the overall justice center project to include the jail, courtrooms and sheriff's department.

About $2 million of that bond is also earmarked for a restoration of the main courthouse in downtown Rogersville. The funds have been allocated, are earning interest, and will be ready once a construction bid is approved.

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