Task force considers changes at county jail

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

   The Carter County jail reached its highest occupancy numbers last weekend, housing over 220 inmates when it is only certified by the state to hold a maximum of 91.
   This and other issues led the Carter County Jail Task Force to hold its inaugural meeting Tuesday night to discuss possible immediate, intermediate, and long-term solutions to inmate overcrowding. Problems such as the steady deterioration of the building, plumbing problems, and vandalism have also prompted action to be taken.
   Deputy Sheriff, James Parrish, presented members of the task force with a staff briefing of the situation as it currently stands at the facility and suggested courses of action.
   Parrish described a rough outline of ways in which the group could begin to develop a course of action. "This is a framework for a decision making process," Parrish said.
   In December, a state inspector handed the county an ultimatum calling for additional jailers to be added to the staff at the jail and for security cameras to be installed at the facility. Other outstanding maintenance projects at the jail must be completed as well.
   The local task force was formed shortly after the intervention of the Tennessee Corrections Institute. State inspectors will be looking over the county's shoulder to make sure steps are being taken to improve jail conditions.
   No decisions have been made concerning a course of action, but the task force is currently looking at options for renovating old courtrooms and the sheriff's office and building an addition on site as potential solutions. Each of the solutions would result in additional jail space.
   The task force used facts the deputy sheriff compiled to begin the brainstorming portion of the decision making process. County Executive, Dale Fair encouraged members to explore several options when dealing with the issues.
   "I want us as a task force to think outside the box and meet the needs we have to meet," Fair said. "We have to throw it all out on the table, and if we throw enough out on the table we will probably be able to meet our needs."
   The jail has several needs; however, officials agree most of the problems stem from overcrowding. Fair highlighted four main areas that his office believes contribute to the overall problem at the 21-year-old facility.
   One contributing problem is the local judicial system. The number of pre-trial felons awaiting their day in court has increased from 32 inmates in 1995 to 75 in 2002.
   The county is responsible to house, feed, and supply medical care to pre-trial inmates until they can appear before the grand jury. The county may house the inmates for as long as two months while they wait for the next grand jury, which convenes only six times each year.
   Whatever is done, the task force said it must have a lasting impact. Sheriff John Henson encouraged the group to think long term when dealing with the issue.
   "Whatever you do it will reflect back on you 10-20 years from now, so whatever you do you really need to look at the future," Henson said. "I have always been told if you do it right, then you don't have to go back and re-do it."
   Before its February meeting, the task force plans to make sure all members have toured the county jail in order to have a better understanding of the issues being addressed. Members will also be traveling to Blount County, Tenn. to tour a jail recommended by Sheriff Henson. The sheriff believes the facility is one that would serve as a good model for the county.