Sullivan jail too crowded to accept weekend inmates

J. H. Osborne • Oct 22, 2017 at 2:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — If there were a "No Vacancy" sign outside the Sullivan County Jail, it would have been flipped on months ago, at least for offenders reporting to serve weekend sentences.

The county's long-overcrowded two-facility jail, designed to hold 619 inmates, has in recent weeks neared the 900 mark.

And Sheriff Wayne Anderson has given written notice to County Mayor Richard Venable, all 24 members of the Sullivan County Commission and others that due to the overcrowding, inmates sentenced to serve time on weekends have been turned away, with few exceptions, since May.

On Friday afternoon, Sullivan County Sheriff's Office Maj. Joey Strickler said the backlog of offenders waiting to serve their weekend time numbers between 80 and 100 — and none have been able to get into the jail since at least July.

This isn't the first time the jail has had to defer weekenders. But it usually hasn't lasted this long or resulted in this much of a backlog.

"This is the worst it's ever been," Strickler said.

The situation is frustrating to all involved, from sheriff's staff, prosecutors and judges to defense attorneys and sentenced offenders, Strickler said.

Once sentenced, some offenders want to serve their time as soon as possible and get it out of the way, Strickler said. As for sheriff's staff and the court system, it sometimes proves resource-consuming to track down and get offenders to report back to jail if and when there's room to house them.

When sentenced in court, an offender is told a date on which to report to jail, Strickler said, but in recent months they show up only to be told there's no room.

Offenders sentenced to serve on weekends (anywhere from 48 hours to 30-45 days) are limited to those convicted on misdemeanor charges including DUI, theft or domestic violence, among other offenses.

Sullivan County's jail facilities have a total capacity of 619 — 379 in the main jail (built 30 years ago) and another 240 in a separate building constructed as a medium-security facility several years ago. The latter was intended to help ease overcrowding but was pretty much full the day it opened.

According to Anderson's letter of Sept. 29: the average inmate population for the week of Sept. 16-22 was 819 (594 males and 225 females); and the average inmate population for the week of Sept. 23-29 was 835 (605 males and 230 females).

Why does it matter if inmates are crowded?

Because it can lead to the loss of the jail's state certification, which would trigger such sanctions as the loss of state funding, which would immediately cost county taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

And it could lead to lawsuits. Jail capacity limits are not arbitrary numbers. They are based on guidelines that often are the result of case law, from prior lawsuits that challenged inmates’ treatment while incarcerated. A jail’s certified capacity can also be misleading because all beds are not equal when it comes to how they can be used. Inmates must be separated by classifications (nonviolent vs. violent, felony vs. misdemeanor, and so on) and also by sex. Soon, sheriff’s staff said, another requirement is expected to make it necessary to keep pre-trial inmates separate from convicted inmates.

The jail has been under scrutiny by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) for more than three years. In 2014, the Sullivan County Jail nearly lost its certification due to overcrowding and other deficiencies found during an inspection by the TCI. The jail has retained its certification under "plan of action" status, which means county officials are able to show the progress toward solving the problem.

In August 2016, a needs assessment study of the jail — produced by a consultant specializing in jail management who works for the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service — indicated the county must expand its jail facilities.

That could mean a whole new jail. It could mean an addition to the current jail. Either option will be a costly undertaking. But the most costly thing for the county and its taxpayers would be to do nothing, Wally Boyd said back then.

Boyd is chairman of an ad hoc jail study committee created three years ago to look for a long-range solution to constant overcrowding.

Guidelines on jail capacities classify a jail facility as reaching its “limit” at 90 percent occupancy, and over the last five years, the Sullivan County Jail and its annex combined have averaged, daily, 125 percent of their total bed space, according to information commissioners were shown.

Boyd's committee ultimately asked the Sullivan County Commission to approve hiring an engineering firm to assess the main jail structurally to see if and how it could be used as a basis for expansion. And earlier this year, the commission agreed to hire an outside consultant to assess the structural and engineering integrity of the facility.

On Friday, Boyd told the Times-News the results of that engineering study are expected to be revealed this week. The jail committee is scheduled to meet Thursday.

Boyd has said his vision is that when the committee does ultimately make a formal recommendation to the commission, it will list all possibilities the committee will have considered (building a new jail at a new location, adding on to the existing jail, and even the “do-nothing” option, which he said has been suggested by some in the community), but clearly define what option the committee recommends — and why its members decided that is the best option.

On Friday, Boyd said he hopes the committee will make its recommendation to the County Commission by the end of the year. The committee's future afterward will be up to the commission, Boyd said.

"If they say 'thank you,' and that's all they want from us, we'll disband," Boyd said. "If they want us to stay involved in the process, we'll stay involved to offer whatever input they ask us to provide."

While previous discussions of the committee, as well as talk among county commissioners, have included considering alternative sentencing and other ways of reducing the number of inmates housed at the county jail, those options don’t really do enough to help the problems that cause the overcrowding.

Alternative sentencing is at the discretion of judges and is only used for nonviolent offenders. The jail is crowded with pretrial inmates, most of whom are charged with felonies, according to Boyd, Strickler and previous discussions between committee members and various county officials. On Friday, Strickler said there were "very few" state inmates in the jail.

A report last month from the Sullivan County grand jury stated grand jurors toured the two jail facilities earlier this year and "strongly suggested" a new jail facility or jail expansion be "a top priority."

According to the report:

• The grand jury visited the jail in February on a day when it housed 707 inmates. Later, in August, however, the jury foreman inquired about the number of inmates and was told the number of inmates had exceeded 800 on several recent days.

• Due to overcrowding, the medium-security "extension" facility often houses maximum-security inmates.

• "Jail overcrowding compromises the safety of officers, employees, inmates and quite possibly the general population."

• The TCI granted Sullivan County certfication again in January, but "the overcrowding issue continues to threaten that certification."

• "The kitchen is outdated and needs new equipment and additional space, as it is difficult to prepare the number of meals needed for the current inmate population in a kitchen designed for a much smaller population."

• "We recognize the financial burden that Sullivan County taxpayers would assume with the construction of a new jail. However, due to the current and what continues to be a continually rising number of inmates, we acknowledge that the county is in dire need of a new expanded jail facility."

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