Grand jury: Sullivan County jail overcrowding 'needs attention'

J. H. Osborne • Mar 31, 2019 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The latest term-ending report from the Sullivan County grand jury warns “that the serious overcrowding situation” in the county’s jail facilities “needs attention” and has the potential to negatively impact the county.

The report, submitted by the grand jury which served from September 2018 to February of this year, is not the first to point out the need to address overcrowding in the main jail and auxiliary building. A grand jury which served in mid 2017 also highlighted overcrowding and other issues that needed attention at the facilities.

The most recent report states the grand jury toured the jail on Aug. 15, 2018 and the inmate population that day totaled 880. The two facilities have a combined capacity of 619. In recent weeks, the inmate population has been as high as 980.

From the report:

“We were made aware of several major concerns or needs of the jail. The biggest concern is overcrowding. The jail was nearly 260 inmates above capacity the day we visited. When the number of inmates rises, the number of officers remains the same, meaning the ratio of inmates to officers is inadequate. Other concerns are a result of the severe overcrowding. They include but are not limited to: the kitchen is too small, making it difficult to prepare food for the increased number of inmates; inmates’ yard time (exercise) can’t be provided every day, and the indoor recreation room has to be utilized as a weekend holding area or often is used to house inmates. Perhaps the most serious concern related to overcrowding is safety ... safety for the officers whose job it is to maintain order among the inmates/felons whose temperaments/tempers are unpredictable, quick to anger, and often threatening. Inmate safety is a concern as well, as day to day living in cells overcrowded with felons creates an environment where their safety can be at risk. The grand jury would like to emphasize that the serious overcrowding in Sullivan County’s jails needs attention, and that it has the potential to negatively impact the county.”

Sullivan County's jail facilities have a total capacity of 619 — 379 in the main jail (built more than 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 basically full the day it opened.

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.

Last month, nearly a year after receiving proposals from seven architectural firms, the Sullivan County Commission hired Knoxville-based Michael Brady, Inc., at a cost not to exceed $225,000, as a “first phase of trying to build a new jail.” 

County Mayor Richard Venable said the firm is very experienced in such work, and a representative of MBI said the firm has completed or is working on jail and justice center projects for multiple counties across the state, including Campbell, Anderson, Monroe, Loudon, and Blount — with work for the latter including a program similar to what the firm understands it is being asked to do for Sullivan County: expanding the jail and/or a transition center.

MBI is expected to complete its work by November.