Sullivan jail, courtrooms could total $168.4 million

J. H. Osborne • Nov 8, 2019 at 9:06 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County taxpayers could be footing the bill for anywhere from $69.3 million to $168.4 million for new and/or renovated jail facilities. And that’s in today’s dollars. With an estimated completion time of three years out, or more, the estimated cost could rise by the time construction takes place.

All that and more were among details shared Thursday with Sullivan County commissioners and other officials by the consulting firm hired by the county to recommend potential solutions to the county’s longtime overcrowding issues at the jail. Just last week, a federal lawsuit was filed against the county by a former inmate due to conditions at the jail, which some commissioners and jail staff themselves have likened to a third-world country or a ticking time bomb.

Earlier this year, nearly a year after receiving proposals from seven architectural firms, the Sullivan County Commission hired Michael Brady Inc. (MBI) at a cost not to exceed $225,000 as a “first phase of trying to build a new jail.” MBI is expected to complete its work by Thanksgiving.

On Thursday, MBI presented the commission with five “schemes” for adding more bed space to the county’s jail facilities. Two of the options had pretty much been presented a couple of months ago, and a third was simply a more detailed version of the option of consolidating all county courtrooms — including those currently in downtown Kingsport and downtown Bristol — into one location, along with a completely new jail. That would presumably be built in or near Blountville. But building a new jail, with or without the courts, would require a 30-acre site. The $168.4 million figure is to build a new jail and also the new courtrooms. It does not include the cost of the land.

To build the new 1,400-capacity jail and sheriff’s office, without the courtrooms (but with space and design options to permit their addition later) is estimated to cost $114.8 million (again, not including the 30-acre plot of land).

The first design “scheme,” to construct new pods behind the current jail, renovate the existing jail and expand the “jail extension” (a separate facility built years ago to address overcrowding at the main jail) would cost an estimated $88 million.

Two new designs were made public on Thursday. The first was dubbed “the economy scheme” ($69.3 million) and would only increase jail capacity to 1,291 and would not address several other issues seen as key, MBI officials said. The second design would reconfigure the first plan. It would add pods to the back of the current jail, but instead of one story, it would “stack” the pods. That would leave room on the current jail site for future expansion. Until then, it would be a parking lot, easing parking woes at the justice center complex. Its estimated cost: $88.9 million.

After the presentation, County Attorney Dan Street asked the commission to go into executive session, a move allowed by law to exclude the public from discussion of active lawsuits.

Street said he wanted to talk to the commission about the $3 million federal lawsuit filed last week by Travis Bellew of Kingsport.

Named as defendants are Sullivan County, Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Capt. Lee Carswell and former corrections officer Christopher Sabo. The lawsuit makes a number of claims against the defendants, including that the jail suffers from overcrowding and understaffing, that the facility is poorly designed, has untrained officers and is lacking a system that separates violent inmates from nonviolent ones.