Jail Task Force meeting has somber mood

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   A somber mood filled the room where the Carter County Jail Task Force met Tuesday afternoon to discuss two class-action lawsuits against the county and an upcoming meeting with state officials that could result in the jail's loss of certification.
   In preparation for a Thursday meeting with the board of the Tennessee Corrections Institute, county and jail officials, to get a solution to the overcrowding problem at the jail, discussed a needs assessment study an engineering firm is conducting.
   The engineering firm Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, Inc. has completed phases one through three of a four-phase needs assessment study. The firm presented the third phase of the study to the Task Force at its December meeting and said that, in order to keep up with the growth rate, in 20 years the county will need a facility that can hold approximately 500 inmates.
   The Task Force discussed goals they need to meet in an intermediate phase that will hopefully temporarily fix the overcrowding problem but also allow the county room to expand later.
   According to Carter County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chief James Parrish, county and jail officials need to set a goal immediately to present to the TCI to help make a case for retaining certification of the jail. "They are going to ask us some very specific questions," Parrish said.
   Parrish said he and other jail officials are building a plan to take to the TCI with documentation of improvements that have been made, requirements that have been met, and the needs assessment study which shows how the county is repairing problems.
   According to County Mayor Dale Fair, the decision made by Jail Task Force members Tuesday afternoon to ask BWS&C engineers about the feasibility of building a 377 bed facility is not one that is set in stone. "Just to clarify, we'd like to have some direction from you as the Task Force," Fair told members of the group. "If we've got a directive and we're in phase four of a four-phase study then we're almost there in their eyes, even if we have to go back and forth.
   "Give us a direction tonight for our meeting Thursday and then we will come back to our regular Task Force meeting in February and solidify that."
   Phase four of the study is the directives phase where the Task Force creates a goal for the engineering firm which then looks at the land available at the jail as well as the building itself to determine if new land should be purchased or if the goal is unachievable.
   According to Fair, Parrish and Carter County Sheriff John Henson, the meeting between local officials and TCI Thursday could have a large impact on the county.
   "With the lawsuits we've got pending, if we lose certification down there on Thursday then the odds go up about 50 percent that we could lose," Henson said.
   Not only could de-certification have an impact on pending lawsuits, but it could also have other financial repercussions as well. "If we lose our certification then we become uninsurable and we lose the money we bring in on state inmates which equates to about $290,000," Parrish said.
   At the time of the most recent TCI inspection, the Carter County Jail was averaging nearly 250 inmates a day in a facility that is only certified to hold 91 inmates. Currently, the daily average is approximately 200 and has recently been as low as only 170, according to jail officials.