Jail overcrowding nothing new for Sullivan County

J. H. Osborne • Oct 5, 2019 at 3:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — There’s nothing new about Sullivan County jail facilities housing far more inmates than they are designed to hold. It’s a problem dating back at least 35 years. So far, each attempt to “outbuild” the inmate population hasn’t worked, at least not for long.

Here’s a brief timeline of how we got to the current process in which the county is trying to design and construct a brand new jail, expand its two jail facilities, or do some combination of the two.


• In 1955, Sullivan County built a $200,000 jail. It attached to the back of the courthouse and also housed the sheriff’s office. Voters had overwhelmingly approved construction of the new jail, by referendum, in August 1954. A news article from April 1953 noted conditions at the current jail were considered “critical” and had been a problem for two decades.

• We couldn’t find clear numbers on how many inmates that 1955 jail was built to hold. But an article from May 1974 noted the jail had been declared “at capacity” a week earlier with 80 inmates (but jail staff said at the time that with more mattresses the capacity could be increased as high as 120).

• Before the jail could hit its 30th anniversary, overcrowding led to a federal lawsuit brought by inmates claiming violation of, among other things, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment” due to the overcrowding. At that time, as today, the county was actually operating two facilities: the actual jail and a “workhouse.” The latter was operated out of the Old Sheriff’s Home, a two-story 19th century building that still stands on a hill behind the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

• The class action lawsuit went to federal court in 1986. At the time, the jail had 122 bunks and the workhouse had 30. Total inmate population on the day of trial was 167. Prior to the court’s final disposition of the case, the county broke ground for what is now the Blountville Justice Center, a project described as “a project originally initiated several years ago.” But it was 15 months away from completion.

• One portion of the case summary states, in part: “County jails are generally thought of as short-term facilities with a population constantly under transition. ... The representative plaintiffs in this action spent anywhere from a few days to over a year in the Sullivan County Jail. Thus, exposure to the offensive conditions cannot be considered minimal. The greater the length of confinement, the more debilitating such conditions would be. Although the jail population will constantly be in transition, many of those incarcerated in Sullivan County remain for several months.”

• The court found, from the facts outlined above, that the conditions of confinement at the Sullivan County Jail violated the rights of those confined to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The primary cause of Sullivan County's Constitutional violation was the overcrowding.

• Citing another case, the summary noted: “Simply crowding more than one inmate in a limited living area has been described as ‘among the most debasing and most dehumanizing aspects of present prison life. It rips away the sense of privacy, of dignity which can make bearable many things which otherwise could not be endured.’ ”

• Ultimately, the court ordered that the population of the main facility at the Sullivan County Jail be reduced to 100 inmates within 90 days, and 70 inmates within 180 days. The maximum number of inmates so confined thereafter could fluctuate between 65 and 75, but must not exceed 75. It further ordered “that the workhouse, as it is presently constituted, be closed within ninety (90) days; and that the county proceed with the construction of a prefabricated metal building which will comply with State T.C.I. requirements, as a replacement for the workhouse.”


• The new jail opened within the justice center in 1986 with a capacity of 221. The metal “annex” could hold another 96, giving the county a total inmate capacity of 317. It was quickly at capacity.

• By the mid to late 1990s, county sheriffs were asking for an expansion.

• By 2002, an expansion project had increased the main jail’s capacity to 353, for a total capacity of 449 with the “annex.” Inmate numbers were running between 400 and 500 by then.

• In 2003, the “annex” was closed, leaving the county jail with a capacity of 383.


• In an effort to ease ongoing overcrowding, the county built a second facility in 2005, referred to as “an extension,” even though it is not connected to the main jail. The extension was built to hold 240, and by that year the main jail was rated as being able to house 381 inmates. The 240 and 381 combined have become what is today the oft-repeated statement that Sullivan County is certified to house 621 inmates.

• But in recent years, the two facilities combined have held 800 to 900 or more inmates. The number officially passed 1,000 earlier this year and has since eased quickly toward 1,100.

• Sullivan County came close to losing state certification for its jails — a move that would cause a loss of state funding and potentially put county taxpayers on the hook to pay for ensuing lawsuits — more than five years ago, in 2014. It has been allowed to maintain its certification only because the county has been able to show it is working toward a solution to ongoing overcrowding.

• County Mayor Richard Venable appointed an ad hoc committee shortly afterward to study the jail issue and bring a recommendation back to the Sullivan County Commission. That committee submitted its findings in late 2017: Hire an architectural firm to evaluate the current jail “campus” and facilities to see whether and how current facilities can be used and expanded. The commission subsequently directed the county’s purchasing agent to seek “requests for qualifications” from firms interested in vying for the job. The purchasing agent put out the RFQ shortly afterward and by March 2018 had seven responses.

• A group of county officials narrowed the list to four. Then about a year ago — after the August 2018 county general election — the four finalists were invited to come to Blountville to give individual presentations to those officials (including Mayor Richard Venable, Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey and Sheriff Jeff Cassidy). The public and media were barred from those meetings. In the end, the group chose MBI to do the work at a cost “not to exceed” $225,000. When the commission first asked the purchasing agent to seek proposals in late 2017, the cost then was estimated at $100,000.

• MBI 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.

• The committee that had met for three years recommended building or expanding the jail to a capacity of 1,000. MBI has since presented two potential plans, both of which would increase capacity to 1,400.

• 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 November 2017, during a meeting of that committee, District Attorney General Barry Stuabus said the situation is critical and there’s no reason to think there’s going to be a downturn in the number of people being incarcerated. Staubus said the number of cases pursued by his office in the most recent six-month period was 100 more than the prior six-month period. Staubus and others also reiterated that the explosion in the number of inmates in recent years is directly attributable to drug use. But they clarified that most of those in jail are there due to charges indirectly related to drugs: It’s what they’re doing to feed their habit that lands them behind bars.