Sullivan County's jail construction plans to be revealed today

J. H. Osborne • Sep 12, 2019 at 9:06 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The public could get its first look Thursday at plans to expand or replace Sullivan County’s jail facilities. The firm hired to develop a plan  to address the longtime overcrowding issue at the jail is set to reveal multiple options during three presentations for county officials Thursday morning — followed by a presentation Thursday night to the full Sullivan County Commission, which is open to the public.

Earlier this year, nearly a year after receiving proposals from seven architectural firms, the Sullivan County Commission hired Michael Brady Inc. (MBI) 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.

Last month, MBI representatives presented the first set of conceptual drawings to Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Sullivan County Jail Administrator Lee 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. That figure is a rough estimate. That design 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. Excluding the proposed addition to the “annex” would reduce the cost to $40 million to $42 million.

In recent weeks, the daily inmate head count at the county’s two facilities have housed more than 1,000 inmates. The facilities together are certified to house 619 inmates.

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.

The most recent Sullivan County grand jury report, from jurors who met from March through August, noted the jail’s overcrowding “is a serious concern and impacts all aspects of the jail’s operation.”

“This grand jury, as well as past grand juries, notes the difficulties of operating the jail safety and effectively with an extremely overcrowded inmate population,” the report states in part. “Space for housing, food preparation, medical care, religious needs and daily exercise for 900 plus inmates in a jail designed for servicing 619 inmates is difficult. The most serious concern is related to safety ... safety for the officers who are charged with maintaining order among the inmates/felons whose tempers are unpredictable, quick to anger, and often violent.”

The grand jurors wrote that they recognize the solution is going to be “very costly,” but is necessary, and it is imperative that the situation be addressed and resolved in as timely a manner as possible.

At Thursday’s meetings, MBI is expected to provide at least two more design options for improving and expanding Sullivan County jail facilities, along with more exact cost estimates. The firm also was told last month to 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.

The Sullivan County Commission’s work session is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.