Sullivan jail: 'Third World country-type thing' and 'going to blow'

J. H. Osborne • Apr 14, 2019 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The need for additional employees for the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, specifically for the county’s jail facilities, is back on the front burner as an issue before the Sullivan County Commission.


The county has the main jail plus a separate “expansion” built a dozen years ago. Combined, the two facilities are certified to house 619 inmates. In recent months they’ve housed more than 900 — exceeding 980 on some days. The facilities have remained certified by the state for nearly the last five years only because the county has been working on a solution. More than a year ago, a committee recommended hiring a consultant to evaluate the jail facilities and recommend whether to expand, renovate, or do a combination of the two. The commission recently hired a Knoxville-based firm to do so.

On Thursday, during the commission’s monthly work session, Commissioner Hunter Locke introduced a resolution seeking funding to hire 32 new employees for the jail. Locke said the request is to add a population manager; a registered nurse; four licensed practical nurses (one per shift); four shift sergeants (one per shift); two transportation officers; four officers for male housing; four officers for female housing; four officers for maximum security housing; four officers for male inmates at the expansion; and four booking officers.

The total cost, including training, equipment and benefits is roughly $2 million.

The problems

Jail Administrator Lee Carswell detailed current staffing, problems caused by understaffing, comparisons of staffing in Sullivan County with other counties in the state and other information in a Power Point presentation. Carswell said the crime rate has grown in Sullivan County, but personnel in the justice system has not. Carswell said inmate-on-inmate assaults average 30 to 35 per month. The main jail’s outdated linear design (it was built in the 1980s) is the worst possible design when it comes to manpower needed to keep an eye on inmates, Carswell said. Overcrowding, which has been a problem for years, only makes things worse. In one male inmate housing area, there are more than 300 prisoners with two officers per shift.

Other factors are a high, and costly, turnover rate among jail employees and constant overtime (which is one factor in losing employees), Carswell said. In 2017, 65 new hires were made for the jail and 41 resigned or were terminated — costing the county $340,000 in lost training costs. In 2018, there were 52 new hires, 33 resigned or were terminated, and the cost to the county was about $274,000.

Carswell said the figure of 32 new employees is a conservative one and lower than he initially considered presenting after being “put on notice” by the county attorney to develop a recommendation for addressing safety issues at the jail sooner rather than later.

What the doctor said

Dr. Martha Parker has worked, under contract, at the jail for three years. Parker said the county’s liability is increasing incrementally with the overcrowding and understaffing.

“It is unsafe for inmates and it is unsafe for officers,” Parker said. “They were overwhelmed when I got here (three years ago), and they’re drowning now.”

Parker said the jail is “significantly more violent” today than it was three years ago with “constant altercations.”

“We’re gluing heads every day. The more crowded it becomes, the more injuries we see.”

When she first arrived, broken jaws weren’t a regular occurrence, Parker said, but last year in one four-month period there were six broken jaws and four orbital fractures. 

“Those are serious injuries and they cost ... a lot of money,” Parker said. “This place is going to blow.”

So far this year, according to Carswell’s presentation, there have been 124 inmate-on-inmate assaults; three inmate-on-officer assaults; 58 uses of force; 330 disciplinary reports; and 393 incident reports.


Commissioner Colette George said she is among commissioners who have toured the jail at Carswell’s invitation in recent weeks.

“I am embarrassed that in Sullivan County in 2019 we have those conditions,” George said. “This is a Third World country-type thing you are dealing with.”

George said she agrees there is a need, but asked Carswell if the number of new hires could be lowered.

Commissioner Angie Stanley said she has toured the jail many times in recent years and said she has viewed “very disturbing” videos of violent acts inside the jail. Stanley said it’s somebody’s child or parent or grandparent who is getting the life beaten out of them in inmate-on-inmate assaults.

 “It’s inhumane,” Stanley said, noting that there is gang activity connected to the violence. “We have got to do something. There are two officers for 268 inmates? That’s insane.”

Stanley said as a member of the commission’s Executive Committee for several years, she has heard and voted on multiple lawsuits over issues at the jail, and the money that’s been paid out would have covered what is being requested by Locke’s resolution.

Commissioner Judy Blalock asked Carswell if instead of hiring 32 new employees, could he just hire a project manager to study the issue and come back with a recommendation? Blalock proceeded to ask if Carswell couldn’t take some of the patrol deputies she sees just sitting around talking to each other and “not doing anything” and have them work in the jail.

Commissioner Todd Broughton repeatedly described Carswell’s presentation as “knee-jerk” and chastised Carswell for saying “I” instead of “we.”

“You’re making it the Lee Show,” Broughton said at one point, before saying he doesn’t doubt the jail needs the employees being sought in Locke’s resolution, but he said the county just doesn’t have the money right now. 

Carswell said it is his responsibility, as jail administrator and representing all the staff who work there, to inform the commission of the potential liability being caused by understaffing, which leads to lawsuits regularly across the nation.

“They need help”

County Attorney Dan Street spoke up to say he had told Carswell the Sheriff’s Office needed to come up with a recommendation for how to address the growing violence in the jail now — not sometime in the future.

When Street first asked to be recognized during the debate, County Mayor Richard Venable asked if Street wanted to ask a question about the resolution. Street replied that he wanted to make a comment. Venable said he himself didn’t make comments “from the chair” and verbally nudged Street, saying he was sure individual commissioners would consider the attorney’s advice. After another moment, Venable told Street to go ahead and speak.

“I am in favor of the resolution,” Street said, going on to say he had told Carswell, probably rudely, that he was tired of hearing complaints about safety issues at the jail. “We needed solutions ... a recommendation from the Sheriff’s Department. ... We need short-term solutions. A long-term solution is being looked at, but we need some short-term solutions.”

Street said the county has looked for other options to lower the inmate population, such as ankle bracelet monitors for nonviolent offenders.

“All those things have been looked at,” Street said. “Three years have gone by. We have to do something about it today. We can’t just look at what we’re going to do two or three years from today. We’ve got to do something about today.”

Street said the safety of the officers in the jail and of the inmates needs to be addressed.

“We’ve got serious problems over there,” Street said, and that could lead to federal courts coming in and telling the county what to do. “They need help. I think Sullivan County needs to step up to the plate and address the problem before we’re forced to.”

The issue could next be discussed and potentially voted on next week.