Jail Task Force discusses overcrowding issue

By Abby Morris

Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Members of the Carter County Jail Solution Task Force who met Tuesday night to discuss the overcrowding problem at the Carter County Jail decided to have a needs assessment study performed to see what the best recourse would be to solve the problem.
   Task force members met with Terry Hazard, from the County Technical Assistance Service, who spoke to them about some of their options. Because of the increase in the number of inmates at the jail, the county must decide whether to add to and remodel the current facility or build a completely new jail facility, Hazard said.
   According to Hazard, the Carter County Jail is certified as a 91 bed detention facility. He further stated that on Monday when he inspected the jail, 212 inmates were being housed there. "As your population goes up, the crime rate goes up and you're going to have more people in jail," Carter County Sheriff John Henson said. "Right now with the number of inmates that we've got, if something critical happens we don't have the staff to handle it." Henson added that the jail is currently averaging more than 200 inmates a day.
   One of the main problems with the jail's current facility is the way it is designed, according to Hazard. "I would stake a bet that whoever designed it was not a jail architect," he said, adding that visibility in the jail is extremely limited and that jailers have to enter a cell block to investigate problems. "It's dangerous for the jail staff," Hazard said. "The jailers are doing a heck of a job with what they have to work with."
   One possible solution would be to build a cell block pod adjacent to the current facility and connect it with an enclosed walkway. The plan for a cell block pod that Hazard explained to Task Force members allowed for a 230 bed facility with a centralized command location. After building that pod, the county could look at remodeling the current facility to redesign it into a modified pod-style cell block which could house approximately 75 inmates.
   Henson explained that the property where the current jail is located does not allow for much expansion and should the county need to increase the jail capacity again, it would have nowhere to build.
   A second option would be to select another location and build a completely new jail facility. One problem that would be created by having a jail facility that is separate from the building that houses the clerk's office as well as judge's chambers and court rooms would be the increased cost of having to transport inmates for court appearances.
   The members of the Task Force agreed that it would be in the best interest to have a needs assessment done so that the problem of overcrowding could be solved in the most effective manner. "While you're crossing the bridge, you might as well cross it right so you don't have to cross it again," Henson said.
   Overcrowding is a problem that is currently being faced throughout the state of Tennessee and across the nation. Currently, 23 of Tennessee's 95 counties have seen their jail facilities de-certified by the state. Carter County has retained its certification for the current jail facility.
   In 2002, more than 21,000 people in Tennessee were incarcerated in detention facilities. That number was up from just under 12,000 in 1992.
   Recently, the number of inmates being held in detention facilities across the nation topped 2 million, according to information from the Justice Department. The incarceration rate, counting state and federal prisoners sentenced to more than one year in prison was 474 for every 100,000 U.S. residents, according to a Justice Department study that was conducted in mid-2002.