Vote set on staffing increase for packed Sullivan County jail

Rain Smith • May 16, 2019 at 7:45 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — As Sullivan County commissioners consider funding for additional employees at the overcrowded jail tonight, the officer in charge of the facility believes he’s provided the information they need to safeguard his vulnerable, undermanned staff.

“At the end of the day, we’re not asking for what we want," said Lee Carswell, administrator of the Sullivan Country jail. “We’re asking for a need that has not been addressed.”

Over the past few months, Carswell has taken commissioners on tours through the facility. The jail, opened in 1987 to house 619 people, held 935 individuals on Wednesday morning. One cell had 12 beds and 31 male inmates.

“We’ve been over 100 percent capacity since 2011,” said Carswell. “It’s not a new problem. It’s a problem that has never been properly addressed. And right now, safety and security of the officers is paramount.”

Weighty workloads

On average, 19 corrections officers are working each of the jail’s four shifts. Those employees don’t just roam the corridors, though that is necessary due to the facility’s outdated linear design that limits officers’ views into cells.  

They also book suspects (184 last week), break up fights (about 40 per month), intercept contraband (44 instances this year), and supervise arrestees receiving care at hospitals (three individuals last week, each for multiple days.)

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to consider a resolution by Commissioner Hunter Locke tonight. It seeks to fund the hiring of 20 additional jail employees. The total cost, including training, equipment and benefits, is roughly $1 million.

Occupational hazards

Four times a day, corrections officers perform one of their most potentially dangerous duties: conducting a headcount. One officer stands at the cell door as two enter, then weave between dozens of inmates to make sure all prisoners are accounted for.

“We are responsible to make sure that we have breathing, living bodies,” said Carswell.

To illustrate the dangers of entering cells with such little backup, Carswell pulls up video from surveillance cameras. As two guards feed occupants of a cell, one inmate suddenly attacks.

After taking a swing at one jailer, he’s out from behind bars and into the corridor. The two officers then talk to calm him down and get him corralled — all while the cell door stands open, inviting 30 other inmates to dart out. This time, none pounce on the opportunity.

Another video shows a new arrestee entering a cell overnight. Clothing is thrown over the camera to obscure viewing from the guard station, located about 70 yards away.

By the time officers reach the cell to intervene, the new inmate has been beaten by several cellmates. He had been booked in for violation of probation on previous drug charges.

“People may say, ‘So what? He’s in jail,’ ” said Carswell. “But is this America, or are we a Third World country and we don’t care? Just because someone has a drug problem doesn’t mean they need to be jumped.”

Frightening figures

Materials provided by the Sheriff’s Office show the average housing numbers in separate areas of the jail. Those figures are juxtaposed against the staff assigned to those spaces.

Unit One: 145 beds, 305 inmates, two corrections officers.

Unit Two (which includes intake and booking): 146 beds, 230 inmates, five officers.

Unit Three: 88 beds, 115 inmates, one officer.

Jail Extension: 240 beds, 295 inmates, four officers.

“I believe that with the information the commission has been provided, they will make an educated decision,” said Carswell about tonight’s vote. “This is not about fixing the overcrowding problem. This is about officer safety and public safety.”

For coverage of Thursday's Sullivan County Commission meeting, read Friday's print edition of the Times News and check with TimesNews.net

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