Jail lawsuit settled

Commission agrees to monitoring, $37,000 compensation

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   By a vote of 15-8, the members of the Carter County Commission approved an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed against the county citing "inhumane" conditions at the Carter County Jail and agreed to allow monitoring of the current jail facility until such time that a new facility is built, a set of progress deadlines relating to both the current and new facilities and a total compensation of $37,000. In return for those conditions, the lawsuit against the County and Sheriff John Henson will be dropped.
   In a closed session which lasted nearly two hours, members of the Commission discussed the terms of the settlement with County Mayor Dale Fair, Henson and attorney John Duffy, who was appointed as counsel for the County in the lawsuit. Following the closed session, the Commission took a short recess and then entered into a public session to take a vote.
   Prior to taking a vote on whether to accept the terms of the settlement, Fair spoke to commissioners and stated that since 23 commissioners were present at the meeting (Commissioner Chuck Culler was absent), that a simple majority of 12 was needed to approve the agreement.
   When Fair opened the floor for a motion, Lynn Tipton made a motion to accept the agreement and Robert Davis seconded the motion. At that time, Fair opened the floor for discussion of the motion prior to a vote, but no commissioners wished to speak on the motion.
   Fair then called for a roll call vote and 15 commissioners voted to accept the agreement while eight voted to not accept the agreement. The motion then passed on a majority vote.
   Due to the fact that the meeting was a special called meeting to discuss the proposed settlement, Fair advised commissioners that they could only discuss issues related to the settlement. At that time, the Commission adjourned.
   Commissioner John Lewis, one of the eight commissioners who voted against the settlement, expressed his displeasure with the agreement after the meeting. "I don't think it's in the best interest of the people of Carter County. I think we'll be put in a bondage, not just us but our children in the future," he said. "I don't think you can compromise with a bunch of prisoners. If you do, you'll be in a lot of trouble."
   The settlement which the commission agreed to allows for monitoring of progress made by the County towards fixing problems cited in the lawsuit such as overcrowding, inadequate medical care for inmates, a lack of opportunities for exercise by inmates, inadequate jail supervision and poor jail facilities.
   The Carter County Commission had previously approved the purchase of five portable inmate housing units and the settlement agreement also deals with the portable units. "Carter County has ordered and agrees to have in place all five temporary, portable, modular units by September 15, pursuant to the County's contract with Eagle Manufacturing," states the settlement. "Within 10 days of delivery onsite by the manufacturer, the county will have the units operational, with 16 additional correctional officers and support staff added to the sheriff's department's budget, so as to provide approximately 96 new beds."
   The settlement also sets deadlines in reference to the construction of a new jail facility. By the terms of the agreement, the County must complete financing sufficient to fund the construction of a new jail by Dec. 31, 2005; if necessary, the County must acquire any real estate property needed for a new jail facility by Dec. 31, 2005; the County must enter into a contract with an architect/engineer for the design and construction of a new jail by Dec. 31, 2005; the County must do "everything within its legal authority" to have a new facility completed or under construction and substantially completed by Dec. 31, 2006; and the County will do "everything within its legal authority" to have a new facility with approximately 300 beds operational by June 30, 2007.
   In addition to setting deadlines relating to the existing and pending jail facilities, the settlement also allows for monitoring of progress by Scott Pratt and John Eldridge, the two attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the County. "Carter County, for the purposes of compliance monitoring, provide to Plaintiff's counsel monthly compilations of daily population, quarterly progress reports (Jan. 15, April 15, July 15 and Oct. 15) on the implementation of this PSA (private settlement agreement), and allow quarterly access on 24 hours notice to the jail facilities to plaintiff's counsel, unless more frequent access is justified by the County's noncompliance with this PSA," states the settlement.
   If at anytime, Pratt and Eldridge determine that Carter County is not in compliance with the agreement, the will notify the County and at that time the County will have a chance to correct the situation. If the situation is not corrected, the agreement allows the plaintiffs to refile the lawsuit or to charge Carter County with breach of contract in state court or to choose to do both.
   Not only does the settlement address the portions of the lawsuit dealing with the actual jail facility, it also deals with the complaint made in the lawsuit in regards to conditions at the existing facility.
   By the terms of the agreement, inmates housed in the modular units will have access to the day room for exercises at least two times per week and inmates housed in the existing jail facility will have access to the rooftop exercise area, weather permitting, at least once a week and the inmates access to the exercise area must be documented.
   "Carter County will provide inmates reasonable access to medical care consistent with the eighth amendment through the use of sick call sign up, screening by the jail nurse, and, where medical care is necessary in the judgment of the nurse or the supervisor on duty, make it available through either examination and treatment by the jail doctor, transportation to the emergency room or hospital in case of emergency, or through medical furlough," states the settlement.
   Following the meeting, Duffy expressed his approval of the actions of the Commission. "The vote of the County Commission tonight was overwhelmingly in the best interest of Carter County," he said. "By large, the agreement contains what the County Commission had planned to do anyway."
   The part of the agreement that Commissioners were least happy with, according to Duffy, is the monetary compensation for the plaintiff's attorneys.
   As part of the settlement, the County has agreed to pay a total amount of $32,000 compensation to Pratt and Eldridge for attorney's fees and expenses. In addition to that compensation, the County also agreed to pay a "compliance monitoring" fee of $1,000 for 2004, $2,000 for 2005 and $2,000 for 2006.
   Henson stated that he was pleased with the decision made by the Commission. "Any time you can get a lawsuit behind you, you feel a lot better," he said. "I'm not admitting to any guilt that we've done anything wrong. The only thing I can see wrong with what we've done is we're overcrowded and our jail is worn out." He also stated that he is "ready to get on with life and get back on track."