Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Angerson leads a tour of the new jail Wednesday. David Grace photo.
BLOUNTVILLE - Where there's a will, there's often a way - and that sometimes holds true even in the highest-security prisons, says Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson.
So he wouldn't say a jailbreak - no matter how unlikely, based on state-of-the-art design and materials - just won't ever happen at the county's new correctional facility.
"There's no way I'm going to say this is escape-proof, because it's not. Alcatraz wasn't, and this is not," Anderson said.
Set to open May 1, the new jail is built to hold 240 inmates, all male, with minimum- and medium-security status. It will operate in addition to the current county jail at an estimated cost of about $1.2 million per year - money that will have to be included in the county's budget year beginning July 1.
When ground was broken for the new facility nearly a year ago, Anderson and other officials predicted its 240 beds would be full the day it opened. But Anderson said Thursday he thinks that won't be the case.
The current, main county jail is designed to house 383 inmates. But it has often housed hundreds more - as many as 677 as recently as December 2005.
On Wednesday, there were 530 inmates in the county jail. But that was up from 480 just a couple of weeks earlier.
Anderson said jail staff will likely transfer about 200 inmates to the new facility.
Anderson pointed out that the new facility does not necessarily mean a complete end to overcrowding at the current jail - which will continue to house all inmates requiring maximum security. There's room there to house 96 such inmates. On Wednesday, there were 106.
Sheriff's staff have experience moving inmates from one facility to another - several years ago about 100 inmates were transferred from a jail "annex" to the main jail.
"I hope this goes as smooth," Anderson said.
Anderson said he thinks the county can add a few more beds to the facility and remain within state guidelines.
"It's a pretty neat facility, but it's bare-bones," Anderson said.
A prime point that makes it better than the main jail is its design, which offers direct line of sight of all inmate areas, the sheriff said.
"That's very important in a jail, because you do have fights, you do have assaults and a lot of different things," Anderson said.
There have been escapes from the county's jails in the past, Anderson said, and new construction always concerns him.
But he lauded the architects of the new facility for its design and features like high ceilings and narrow windows.
"They've gone the extra mile to try and prevent anything like that from happening," Anderson said.
Anderson, sheriff's staff, and several other county officials spent about an hour touring the new facility Wednesday morning. They were joined by reporters and representatives of Vaughn & Melton and BurWil Construction, respectively the architectural and contracting firms for the project.
Officials who toured the facility included: Anderson; Chief Deputy Lisa Christian; SCSO Maj. Brenda Hensley, who oversees county jail operations; Purchasing Agent Nelda Fleenor and staff from her office; Claude Smith, construction project manager for the county; County Mayor Steve Godsey; and County Commissioner Eddie Williams, chairman of the County Commission's Budget Committee.
Smith the project was finished ahead of schedule and for less than the budgeted $3.44 million price tag.
Hensley called the new facility "very workable."
The new 33,000-square-foot facility includes:
•Eight large "bays" with 28 beds each for prisoners. Impact-resistant glass walls divide the units, giving two central guard stations a clear view of the building from one end to the other.
All areas used by inmates in these areas are within view of the guard stations - including toilets and showers. Television service, used to control inmate behavior, can be terminated by guards without entering the inmate areas. The solid, concrete slab ceilings, and the water pipes that run just below them, are about 14 feet high, making it unlikely inmates will reach them. The concrete block walls are reinforced with steel bars and poured concrete.
•Three single "holding cells."
•A 16-bed bay for jail trusties.
•A visitation area with room for up to eight prisoners to talk to visitors - and a separate room for attorney-client consultations.
•A medical room.
•A complete kitchen to make the facility self-sufficient for food service - three meals a day for all inmates housed there, with inmates providing food preparation labor under supervision of cooks hired by the sheriff's department.
•A laundry room.
•A property room with storage space for each inmate's personal items - checked until they are released.
•An "exercise yard."
•And a chapel, which Anderson said will be furnished to look just like any other little church by the time inmates attend worship services for the first time at the new facility.
"It'll have pews and hymnals. We even have an attendance chart on the wall at one end."
The current jail's chapel was only the second ever in the state, Anderson.
"This is something I'm very fond of," Anderson said. "Oddly enough, you can't teach anything about God in school, but you can in jail."
It can also be used as a "multi-purpose room," Anderson said.
The church decor in the current jail's chapel has a real influence on some inmates who first attended service in order to try and confront others to settle a score, Anderson said.
"It looks like a real little church," Anderson said. "And once they went in there ... there weren't any fights with people trying to pay each other back. I think that's important. It's the best therapy they can get."
Anderson said the use of inmate labor saved the county thousands of dollars on the project.
Smith said inmates and participants in the county's day worker program provided 6,800 man-hours of labor to the project, including interior and exterior painting.
The use of inmate labor became an absolute necessity to get the cost within budget, Anderson said.
Bristol-based BurWil Construction submitted the lowest bid on the project - at $3.77 million.
County officials trimmed the scope of the project to get the cost down to $3.44 million.
Smith said he did not have final construction cost figures Wednesday, but the project will come in below that $3.44 million amount.
The only other option the county had to ease overcrowding was to begin construction of the next phase of expansion of the current jail. That carried an estimated price tag of about $18 million for a 160-bed maximum-security pod, county officials said last year.
No funds were included in this year's budget for the facility's operation.
The county's budget year, called a fiscal year, runs from July 1 of one year until June 30 of the following year. This is fiscal year 2007 because fiscal years are named for the year in which they conclude.
In December, the Sullivan County Commission approved adding about $347,000 to the fiscal year 2007 budget to fund operation of the facility - including payroll for new employees hired March 1, and utilities and other operating costs from May 1 through June 30.
The sheriff's department hired 25 employees to run the new facility.