Officials respond to class-action lawsuit filed against county

By Lesley Jenkins and Abby Morris
star staff;

Even though Carter County officials have been working diligently for months to solve mounting problems at the Carter County Detention Center, solutions weren't implemented quickly enough to prevent a class-action lawsuit brought against the county and Sheriff John Henson.
   County Mayor Dale Fair responded to the lawsuit Tuesday by saying he planned to contact County Attorney George Dugger and proceed from his suggestions. Fair said he had not received the paperwork until Tuesday and had not had a chance to discuss the situation with the attorney before making a statement concerning how the county will respond.
   "I feel like we have tried to do what's right as far as the long term plan (for the jail) is concerned," Fair said. He emphasized that the county has tried to keep the current facility in the best shape possible while the needs assessment study is being conducted by an architectural firm, Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon.
   The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court by Johnson City attorney Scott Pratt on behalf of plaintiff's Michael Todd Davis and Donna Wells. Davis was incarcerated at the center from Feb. 21, 2003 to Aug. 23, 2003. Wells was incarcerated during September and October 2003.
   The jail was re-certified by Tennessee Corrections Institute in September 2003 by Melody Gregory, detention facility specialist. She made the recommendation after citing continuing progress of bringing the facility into compliance with TCI standards.
   After recommending re-certification, Gregory said that County Mayor Dale Fair and Henson and his staff were making progress.
   "I will say that Mr. Fair has put forth a wonderful effort, more of an effort than has been put forth since I have been here. Sheriff Henson has worked his employees to death trying to comply with these standards and improve the situation. His employees and him have went above and beyond the call of duty," Gregory said in September.
   BWSC presented the completion of stages one and two at the Oct. 20 county commission meeting. The third stage will be finished and discussed with county commissioners during the Dec. 6 meeting.
   BWSC will present the fourth stage upon completion, and commissioners will possibly have the opportunity to call a special meeting if the results can be obtained at a time that doesn't coincide with a regularly scheduled commission meeting.
   "We (county commission) are pushing as hard as we can go. We are going through all the steps right now. But it looks like we will be able to work something out in the next few months," Fair said.
   Currently, the county and Carter County Sheriff's Department officials are trying to correct problems as they arise. Fair said additional space for inmates was created in the area known as the chapel.
   Henson said creating the space for housing inmates has not interfered with religious practices, saying, "we haven't refused religion." Henson said pastors have never been denied visitation to the facility and named those who come every Sunday to speak to inmates.
   Overcrowding has been an ongoing problem for years at the jail. Present options, which would only be temporary fixes, include purchasing temporary inmate storage facilities or transferring inmates to other jails in the region. Another option would be to transfer state inmates into state custody to alleviate overcrowding.