Task Force approves short-term solution

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   Members of the Carter County Jail Task Force voted Tuesday afternoon to seek the approval of the full County Commission on a measure that would provide short-term relief to the overcrowding situation at the Carter County Jail.
   In a 7-4 vote, the Task Force decided to present to the commission allocation of funds for the purchase of a portable unit to house inmates and funds to renovate the current facility to increase its inmate rating.
   The Carter County Jail currently is certified to house 91 inmates. Renovation of the permanent facility would provide for an additional 21 inmates while the portable unit could house 60 inmates, bringing the total number of inmates the facility could house to 172.
   The cost to renovate would be approximately $40,000, according to County Finance Director Jason Cody, and the cost to purchase the portable housing unit would be approximately $588,000 including the delivery and set-up fee. Cody said he spoke with the company who would sell the portable unit to the county, and they told him the unit could possibly be resold for $200,000 after the county is finished using it.
   County Commissioner Doug Buckles, who is also a member of the Task Force, cast the lone dissenting vote, saying that he was in favor of the option to build a "multi-purpose" building that could house inmates in a dormitory style setting and after the construction of a new jail could be retro-fitted to meet some other needs of the detention facility. Buckles said that he felt it would be a wiser expenditure of the county's money to construct such a building. According to Cody, the cost of constructing a "multi-purpose" building would be approximately $500,000, but inmate labor could be used during construction and that could lower the cost to as little as $340,000.
   Many other members of the Task Force said they agreed that while the "multi-purpose" building might be a wiser financial decision, the financial side of the solution to the jail is not the only obstacle looming on the horizon.
   With the possibility of the Tennessee Corrections Institute decertifying the jail at any time, other Task Force members feel that progress is not being made to relieve overcrowding. There is also the pending lawsuit against the county over conditions at the jail to consider. Time is working against the county, according to County Mayor Dale Fair.
   Carter County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy James Parrish, who is a member of the Task Force, expressed a sense of urgency to correct conditions at the jail and relieve overcrowding at the facility. "It all boils down to time on this," Parrish said, adding that he personally felt it was the only chance the jail has of retaining certification through the TCI. "We know the portables can be here in nine weeks. That is a known. It is the only known we have right now even though it will be a net loss of $300,000 to $400,000."
   Parrish also stressed the importance of easing overcrowding. "We are taking a chance with inmates' lives and we are taking a chance with our jailers' lives," he said. "It's a dangerous place over there right now."
   Carter County Sheriff John Henson, who was named as a defendant along with the county in the pending lawsuit, agreed with Parrish and voiced his own concerns. "We have got a serious situation over there," he said. "Somebody is going to get hurt. And when that happens, you haven't seen a lawsuit yet. And it will happen. What value do you put on a man's life? A hundred thousand dollars? A million?"
   CCSD Sgt. Wendell Treadway, who along with Lt. Forest Sharpe is in charge of jail operations, also voiced concern. "We have fights up there daily. We had a flood last week," he said. "I think if we don't have a plan of action in place by July the TCI will come in and decertify us."
   Cody told the Task Force that if the jail were to be decertified, the cost of liability insurance could increase dramatically.
   Fair said that, while the concern of possible decertification is important, the most imminent danger is the pending lawsuit. On April 26, the judge in the case is scheduled to hold a hearing on a motion by the plaintiffs seeking class-action status and a preliminary injunction against the jail.
   According to Fair, the judge could rule that the county must close the jail until conditions have been corrected. Henson said that the closing of the previous detention facility before the current facility is completed was ordered by a judge, and members of the Sheriff's Department at that time had to transport inmates to other area jail facilities which could house them.
   After much discussion, the Task Force considered holding another meeting before the County Commission's next scheduled regular meeting on April 19 to make a decision then, allowing themselves more time to consider all of the options for a short-term solution. Some members of the Task Force felt that could be counter-productive. "We really need to buckle down and start doing something," said County Commissioner James Davis, a member of the Task Force. "We need to make some progress."
   A roll call vote was taken and seven members of the Task Force were in favor of the portable housing units and one was against it.
   Cody said the salaries and benefits of additional jail staff is also an important consideration. He shared possible budget numbers and said that additional staff may require the county to increase property taxes by $0.08.
   Members also heard from representatives of S&ME, an organization hired to conduct core drilling on the current jail property to determine if the property could geographically sustain a new detention facility. Representatives said that preliminary reports indicate that a new detention facility could be built on the existing property.