Lawyer seeks immediate closure of jail

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Despite the fact that the Carter County Commission last week took progressive action to help ease the overcrowding situation at the Carter County Jail, it may not be enough to save the facility as the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the county citing conditions at the jail have filed a motion in federal court asking for the immediate closure of the detention facility.
   On April 12, the County Commission voted 20-4 to spend approximately $1.8 million dollars to purchase portable inmate housing units and renovate the existing jail facility in hopes of bring the total number of certifiable beds to more than 200. Currently the jail is certified for 91 beds and often averages around 220 inmates a day, more than twice the certified capacity.
   Knoxville attorney John Duffy, who was appointed to represent the county government and Sheriff John Henson in the lawsuit, feels that the action by the commission may give them more ground to stand on at an upcoming hearing in the lawsuit.
   "I think the County Commission has done everything within its ability to meet the county's responsibilities, whatever they may be, in respect to this lawsuit in the short term," Duffy said following the Commission meeting on Monday. "They voted beyond my expectations and I applaud their commitment. Prisons and jails are politically unpopular."
   When asked if he would seek an out-of-court settlement for the county in the lawsuit, Duffy stated such a settlement "is always a possibility."
   In a motion filed by attorneys Scott Pratt, of Johnson City, and John Eldridge, of Knoxville, in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Wednesday, the attorneys are asking to amend their original request for a preliminary injunction against the jail in the lawsuit. The original injunction, if granted, would have allowed a cap to be placed on how many inmates could be held at one time at the Carter County facility and would require the county to house inmates above that number in other area facilities.
   According to Pratt, since the time that the lawsuit was originally filed, both he and Eldridge have had an opportunity to inspect the jail facility and to have a detention facility specialist inspect the jail as well. The findings of those inspections are what prompted the attorneys to amend their original injunction request.
   "Plaintiffs allege that conditions in the Carter County Jail have deteriorated to the point that the jail has become a health hazard, a fire hazard, and a security hazard, to the extent that these hazards present a real and immediate danger to both the inmates who reside there and the sheriff's department employees who work there," states the amended motion for injunction.
   "Plaintiffs allege that the conditions of overcrowding in the jail have become so severe that the inmates occasionally flood the jail to protest. The flooding causes human urine and feces to wash through the ceiling of the courthouse offices which are directly below the jail. Flooding causes a human health hazard that is a real and immediate danger to the workers in the courthouse below and the visitors who conduct business there each day."
   According to the motion, conditions at the jail also create a fire hazard which presents a real and immediate danger. "Within the cell blocks, there exists a great deal of exposed wiring and lots of flammable material in close proximity to that exposed wiring," the motion states. "There have not been routine fire safety drills, and all of the 12 cellblock doors use keys, which have to be turned by hand. Because of these factors, plaintiffs aver that the inmates at the Carter County Jail will suffer immediate and irreparable harm unless action is taken without delay."
   According to Pratt, the air quality in the Carter County Jail is poor and that can create a health hazard. Pratt likened the jail to "a medieval dungeon" because of the air quality, lack of lighting and presence of mold.
   "Plaintiffs also allege that the number of inmates crowded into such small places within the Carter County Jail facility, have created a situation ripe for the spread of infectious disease and the health hazards of breathing stale, stagnant and polluted air," states the motion. "Plaintiffs allege that the heating and cooling system at the jail is not adequate to keep the air pure and free from contaminants which cause disease."
   The motion also cites inmate violence as an immediate danger to the inmates at the jail. "Fights and beatings at the Carter County Jail have become a daily occurrence," states the motion.
   One woman who attended the county commission meeting on April 12 has a vested personal stake in the action the county took in regards to the jail. Carter County resident Judy Garland stated that she had a close family friend in the jail who had been the victim of an attack like the ones described in the lawsuit against the county.
   "He had been severely beaten. The only way I can think to describe it was that he looked like Jesus in the advertisements for 'The Passion of the Christ' (movie). His face was red and one of his eyes was swelled almost completely shut. I didn't recognize him," said Garland, adding that she would prefer to keep the name of the inmate anonymous due to a fear of repercussions against him. "Nobody, nobody, no matter what they have done deserves that treatment."
   Stories like the one related by Garland as well as findings of the jail inspections have prompted Pratt and Eldridge to seek the immediate closure of the jail facility.
   "No reasonable remedy outside of closing the jail can ensure the health and safety of inmates, the sheriff's department and courthouse employees, and the members of the public who are subject to danger on a day-to-day basis as a result of jail conditions," states the motion.
   In the motion, Pratt and Eldridge on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case are asking that the court issue an order "that enjoins Carter County Jail from any further operation of the jail in its present condition." The motion also asks that the court order the county to transfer all of the inmates in the jail to other jail facilities until such time as the jail can be safely operated.
   "Winston Churchill said you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners and by that standard this county would be judged poorly," said Pratt.