The study also would include consideration of space needs for either construction of a new jail or expansion of existing jail facilities. The information is being requested by a committee charged with the development of a recommendation for how to solve the county jail’s longtime, ongoing overcrowding situation.
Committee Chairman Wally Boyd first told commissioners the panel wanted such a study a few weeks ago. It became a formal resolution before the county commission last week. It was put on first reading at the commission’s monthly meeting on Monday (Dec. 12). That means it could come up for a vote next month.
"Because we are charged to give you a recommendation, we’d like to request a survey of the current jail facility, so we can determine how that might be used as part of our recommendation,” Boyd said. “We need to know a few things about the facility. We need to know if it is sound. There are some cracks visible in the building. I’d like to know if those cracks are significant, if they’re structural, or if they’re cosmetic. But we need to know before we can say, ‘Yes, we can use this facility and do A, B and C with it.’ Is the current facility sound? What is the cost, if it’s not sound, what is the cost to bring it to soundness? I know there are some HVAC needs. There are probably some more infrastructure needs with that building. We would like to know what it would cost to bring that facility to its optimum use. Can it be remodeled?”
Boyd said the current jail, two stories tall, was designed to be expanded to three floors.
“Is that practical? Is that something? Would it be too expensive? Can you do that and house inmates at the same time? That needs to be addressed, and that needs to be information we have to make a good decision to give you all a good recommendation,” Boyd said.
The resolution points out that guidelines on jail capacities classify a jail facility as reaching its “limit” at 90 percent occupancy and that over the last five years the Sullivan County Jail and its annex combined have averaged, daily, 125 percent of their total bed space.
That has, according to the resolution, created conditions that cause operational challenges: no ability to classify and separate inmates by risk; limited space to house inmates with special medical needs; no ability to segregate housing for maximum security female and male inmates; as well as other issues involving inmate booking and housing of weekend offenders.
A needs assessment study of the Sullivan County Jail, produced by a consultant specializing in jail management who works for the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service, indicates the county must expand its jail facilities.
That could mean a 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, Boyd said when the committee first discussed that study.
The Sullivan County Jail was built in 1986 and expanded in 1999. In 2005, another facility, often called “the annex,” was built nearby.
In all, the county is certified to house about 620 inmates. It is not unusual for the number of inmates to approach the 700 mark.
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, according to discussion among committee members.
And it could lead to lawsuits. Jail capacity limits are not arbitrary numbers. They are based on guidelines which 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 charge vs. misdemeanor, and so on) and also by sex. Soon, sheriff’s staff said, another requirement is expected to make it necessary to keep pretrial inmates separate from convicted inmates.
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, along with convicted felons who have not yet been transported to state prison.
The bottom line, from the needs assessment study already completed, Boyd said, is that Sullivan County needs to increase its jail capacity to 900 in order to meet its needs for the next 10 years. That’s roughly 50 percent above its current certified capacity.