Editorial: It’s no surprise — Sullivan County needs a new jail

Editorial Board • Apr 10, 2019 at 2:30 PM

It’s too soon to hire a project manager even before a consultant has reported on options for the overcrowded Sullivan County jail. But Commissioner Mark Vance’s early focus on what will be a costly undertaking is to be appreciated.

Perhaps other commissioners should join Vance in discussing an aspect that will most certainly come from that report, and that is how to pay for what will be a significant cost for county taxpayers.

Vance recently asked commissioners to approve a project manager to help transition the consultant report, but he was convinced that would be premature. As well, there’s a possibility of some state help with project management and, as Commissioner Colette George pointed out, the scope of the project as the consultant recommends will help define qualifications needed for a project manager.

For instance, the current jail was designed to be expanded from two to three floors, and it might seem a simple matter to just build up. But there may be structural issues with that approach, and adding an additional floor may be inadequate to provide needed space, or serve other operational challenges such as dividing men from women, separating inmates by risk, inmates with special medical needs, maximum security space for both sexes, and issues involving booking and housing of weekend offenders.

The Sullivan County jail currently exceeds capacity by about 50 percent and five years ago nearly lost certification due to overcrowding and deficiencies found by a state inspection. To address those deficiencies, a committee was created in 2014 that ultimately recommended an outside consultant come up with a master plan for the facility.

The county has known for years that it was facing two major projects: new schools and a new jail. School expansion and renovation needs have been addressed with a $140 million project now underway. Next up is the jail.

The consultant will help the county outline 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 consultant is Knoxvillebased Michael Brady Inc., an architectural and engineering firm that has completed, or is working on, jail and justice center projects for at least five Tennessee counties.

The bottom line is that Sullivan County will need significant additional jail space as well as the staff to maintain it. Kingsport businessman Wally Boyd headed the committee that recommended hiring a consultant and reminded members of earlier studies projecting the county ultimately needs about 24,000 square feet of space not including hallways, kitchens, laundry rooms and other components of a jail.

The cost could be in the neighborhood of $50 million or more. That means another bond issue, and that means taxes are going to go up. If there’s any way to prepare for that by cutting other operational expenses, now’s the time to take a hard look at it as commissioners work on the 2019-2020 operating budget.

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