Sullivan County Jail certified again despite overcrowding

J. H. Osborne • Dec 12, 2018 at 9:04 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The long-scrutinized Sullivan County Jail has again received state certification, but only because the county continues to work to find solutions to overcrowding, which the district attorney has called “critical.”

On Monday, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement that Sheriff Jeff Cassidy and some of his staff went before the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Board of Control in reference to the jail’s state certification.

“While the TCI Board of Control did recertify the facility, the jail will remain under the current plan of action,” the statement read in part. “Failure to provide a plan to resolve overcrowding issues will ultimately result in the loss of certification.”

The jail is built to hold 619 inmates. On Monday, it held 897.

The jail has been under scrutiny by the TCI for more than four years. In 2014, the facility 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.

A committee created in 2014 to address overcrowding and other issues at the jail voted more than a year ago to recommend hiring an outside consultant — as soon as possible — to develop a “master plan” for the entire “jail campus.”

The goal of such a plan is to determine the most efficient use of the 30-plus-acre property occupied by the Blountville Justice Center, which houses the main jail, the “medium security annex” and other components of the county’s jail system. The committee’s discussion indicated a consensus among members that the annex should be eliminated in favor of construction of new facilities to the east of the current main jail. That would help make housing inmates more efficient, members said.

The Sullivan County Commission approved the hiring, and County Mayor Richard Venable said in February that the county was ready to seek a consultant to perform the work. The consultant will be selected by a process conducted by the county’s purchasing department. The purchasing department put out a request for qualifications and by March opened the seven responses. That field was narrowed to four solid prospects. Then everything seemed to slow down as election season ramped up. The county’s general election was in August.

Over the past few weeks, county officials, including purchasing department staff, Venable and Cassidy (newly elected in August) have met with each of the four finalists for the job to hear their individual presentations. Those meetings were behind closed doors. The Times News asked about attending one such meeting and was told it wouldn’t be fair to all those in the running for their individual presentations to be made public before the other candidates made their own presentations.

On Tuesday, Venable told the Times News the group is close to making a final choice — but that recommendation won’t likely go before the Sullivan County Commission until at least January.

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.

Venable, on Tuesday, said some expansion is likely one part of the solution, but going forward county officials will be looking at other ways to ease overcrowding — including working with a faith-based program to offer rehabilitation and re-entry components to the incarceration process. The goal there is to help inmates develop skills to succeed once they leave jail and decrease the number of repeat offenders.

A year ago it came to light that overcrowding at the jail was so bad the sheriff’s office was turning away inmates who were showing up to serve weekend sentences.

In November 2017, District Attorney General Barry Staubus said the situation was critical and there’s no reason to think there’s going to be a downturn in the number of people being incarcerated. Staubus said the number of cases pursued by his office in the most recent six-month period was 100 more than the prior six-month period.

Staubus and others also reiterated that the explosion in the number of inmates in recent years is directly attributable to drug use. But they clarified that most of those in jail are there due to charges indirectly related to drugs: It’s what they’re doing to feed their habit that lands them behind bars.

Criminal Court Judge James Goodwin, too, described the problem as having reached “critical mass.”