If plan OK'd today, new Sullivan jail space would be two years out, cost $56M

J. H. Osborne • Aug 20, 2019 at 10:21 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Once a precise plan is developed and approved, it could take $56 million or more and 20 months to complete construction of jail additions needed to ease overcrowding at Sullivan County’s two jail facilities, the firm hired to come up with a plan said Tuesday.

That figure is a rough estimate and based on one conceptual design already produced by the firm. The project would more than double the number of certified beds, from about 620 to more than 1,400, and it is projected to meet the county’s needs for 20 years.

Over the last few days, the two jail facilities housed more than 1,000 inmates, total, Jail Administrator Lee Carswell said during a meeting between county officials and representatives of Knoxville-based Michael Brady, Inc.

The jail has been under scrutiny by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) for about five 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 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.

In 2017, an ad hoc jail study committee, created in 2014 to look for a long-range solution to constant overcrowding, recommended the Sullivan County Commission hire an outside consultant to study current facilities and develop a recommendation for the whole “jail campus” including whether to renovate, expand, build new — or some combination of those things.

Earlier this year, nearly a year after receiving proposals from seven architectural firms, the Sullivan County Commission hired Michael Brady, Inc. at a cost not to exceed $225,000 as a “first phase of trying to build a new jail.” MBI is expected to complete its work by November.

On Tuesday, MBI representatives presented the first set of conceptual drawings to Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Carswell, and others. The drawings showed a single-story addition to the back of the current main jail, with five “pods” that would each house 56 inmates in two-man cells. Each pod has its own “yard,” where inmates are allowed for recreation each day. The pods, while described as “single-story,” actually are the height of two stories — with a “mezzanine” level along each side. There are cells on the floor level and cells directly above on the mezzanine. Guard stations are positioned in a hallway overlooking the pods from about the mezzanine level. It also shows an addition to the jail “annex,” suggested for conversion to an all-female inmate facility.

Asked for a very rough estimate on cost, the MBI representatives said at $330 per square foot the whole project as shown on the drawing would run about $56 million.

Carswell said to try to get the cost down, he could get the jail crowding under control without expansion of the annex. The MBI representatives said that would lower the overall cost to $40 million to $42 million. But everyone at the table seemed to agree that would result in a jail at capacity with no room for future increases in inmate populations — and construction costs typically increase each year.

Venable, for the sake of discussion only, said if the county issued $70 million in bonds (half of what was issued for school projects) and got the same interest rates as on the school bonds, the annual debt service would run about $4.5 million — or 12 cents on the county’s property tax rate.

MBI will provide at least two more design options for improving and expanding Sullivan County jail facilities, along with more exact cost estimates within the next month or so, Venable said. The firm also will take a look at the potential for building a completely new jail, perhaps including new courtrooms, at a new location. But doing so carries a low-ball estimated cost of $100 million or more, meaning it is likely off the table.




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