Sullivan County jail hits infamous milestone

Rain Smith • Jul 30, 2019 at 7:15 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — For the first time since is was opened in 1987 — and at that time, with the intention of holding no more than 619 people — the Sullivan County jail's population has topped 1,000 inmates.

The mark was hit on Saturday, according to Sullivan County Sheriff's Office Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell. Inmate numbers fluctuate slightly from day to day, and by Tuesday afternoon were back to three digits. But as a whole, over the last several years the Blountville jail’s population has steadily and markedly increased.

According to a 2018 report from the Sullivan County grand jury, 880 inmates were held last August. When the Times News visited the facility this past May, 935 individuals were incarcerated. At that time, overcrowding was abundantly evident: Inmates were sleeping on the floor, and a cell with 12 beds held 31 men.

Overcrowding has created safety concerns for the inmates and the corrections staff. In April, Carswell requested 32 new employees at the packed jail and County Commissioner Hunter Locke introduced a resolution seeking the necessary money.

Earlier this month, the Sullivan County Commission approved a 2019-2020 fiscal year budget that included a 2-cent property tax increase. Some of the money generated will fund 10 new employees for the Sullivan County jail.

Over the next couple of months, officials with the Tennessee Corrections Institute are expected to pop in for a visit. The Sullivan County jail has been under the scrutiny of the TCI since 2014, when an inspection forced a "plan of action" to address overcrowding.

Since then, the jail has narrowly retained TCI certification. In August 2016, a needs assessment study of the jail indicated the county must expand its jail facilities.

The following year, an ad hoc jail study committee recommended hiring an outside consultant to study current facilities and develop a recommendation for the whole “jail campus.” Options included renovation, expansion, building a new facility, or some combination of the three.

About four months ago, 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.” The current facility holds suspects charged not only by the SCSO, but also Kingsport police, Bristol police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.