Jail overcrowding not an issue unique only to Carter County

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Even though overcrowding has been a consistent problem at the Carter County Jail, it is not a problem that is unique to the county, state or nation.
   According to a recent report issued by the Office of Research in the state comptroller's office, many jails in Tennessee and across the nation are facing similar overcrowding problems at their facilities.
   "Overcrowding presents many implications for governments. It strains county and state budgets and severely limits a facility's capacity to provide adequate safety, medical care, food service, recreation and sanitation," the report states. "In 1992, 27 percent of the nation's large jails (those with 100 inmates or more) were under court order to reduce overcrowding and/or improve general conditions of confinement."
   The report also states that the number of inmates in Tennessee's local corrections facilities, like the Carter County Jail, increased 56 percent in 10 years, from 13,098 in fiscal year 1991-92 to 20,393 in fiscal year 2002-03.
   "This increase is the result of various factors, including: (Department of Corrections) inmates awaiting transfer to penitentiaries; some judges not allowing bail for pre-trial misdemeanants; some judges requiring sentenced misdemeanants to serve their full sentences; changes in law enforcement practices leading to more arrests; an increase in the number of felons ordered to serve their sentences locally, and trial/hearing postponements," the report states, adding that during the fiscal year 2001-02, 60 state county-operated facilities were operating at a 100 percent or greater capacity.
   A federal class-action lawsuit was filed Monday in Greeneville by two former inmates at the jail and on behalf of other former and current inmates. The suit alleges that conditions at the detention facility "fall beneath the minimum standards for human decency, inflict cruel and needless punishment on all of the inmates, and create an environment that takes a tremendous toll on the inmates physical and emotional well-being," according to the complaint. The suit names the county and Carter County Sheriff John Henson as defendants.
   Lawsuits such as this one are common as the overcrowding problem continues to grow across the state. According to the report by the state comptroller's office, a survey of sheriffs revealed that overcrowding is one condition named in at least 19 percent of lawsuits brought against facilities and in six percent of consent decrees or court orders.
   The report also states that 61 percent of the sheriffs who responded to the survey believe that overcrowding is one of the most important issues facing jails in the next five years.
   "Federal courts have ordered a number of counties, including Shelby, Madison, Knox, Hamilton and Davidson, to reduce the number of inmates," the report states.
   According to the report, six counties in East Tennessee are currently operating at a capacity of more than 100 percent. Of the six counties experiencing overcrowding - Carter, Greene, Hamblen, Hawkins, Jefferson and Johnson Counties - the problem is most severe in Carter County.
   The Carter County Jail is operating at a 192 percent capacity, according to the report, which cited data from June of this year.
   The Carter County Jail is certified to house 91 beds and currently averages around 220 inmates on any given day.