Carter County Jail Task Force discusses options for new facility

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   Members of the Carter County Jail Task Force heard from engineers Monday afternoon concerning the third phase out of four of a needs assessment study being conducted regarding overcrowding at the facility.
   Representatives from Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, Inc., engineering and construction firm met with task force members to discuss Phase III of the needs assessment, which dealt with the projected inmate population and facilities needed to manage it through the year 2023. The potential cost of such a facility was also discussed.
   Projections based on the current population as well as county growth rates for the last several years estimated that the inmate population 20 years from now will be approximately 500. In addition, the study indicated that by 2023, there will be a need for two additional court rooms to process all cases.
   According to the study, the county will need a facility with 97,455 square-feet of space to maintain the sheriff's department and jail along with the services they provide. The jail would constitute 84,014 of those square-feet.
   Grant Tharp, BWSC vice president, presented the task force with a picture of the ideal solution to the overcrowding problem at the jail and projected needs. The plan would include a new jail and sheriff's department housed in one building with the Carter County Clerk's offices for Circuit, Criminal, Juvenile and General Sessions Courts, the public defender's office, the district attorney's office, two additional court rooms, and the offices of the Carter County 911 Communications Center.
   If built to specifications with all agencies included, the new facility would cover approximately 116,600 square-feet of space, and, at today's prices for construction and materials, would cost approximately $18,625,750.
   Both Tharp and Carter County Mayor Dale Fair reminded members of the task force that the engineering firm was not recommending building a new all-inclusive facility as the proper course of action for the county at this time.
   "This is not what they are recommending but this is a look at the full blown picture of our 2023 needs," Fair said. "We don't have to do everything today for 2023 but we shouldn't have to have an assessment done again because we see where we need to be."
   Carter County Sheriff's Department Deputy Bradley Johnson, who serves on the task force, recommended that projected needs be broken into phases so that the full county commission can get a picture of immediate needs and needs that can wait. "We want to know what we can go to the commissioners with. Don't scare them with $18 million but give them other options," he said. "The jail is what is causing us problems and what is getting us in lawsuits."
   Fair agreed with Bradley that the task force should decide what is necessary and present that information to the full county commission. Members suggested figuring the cost of building a new jail and sheriff's department without the judicial offices, court rooms, and 911 communications center added, and also the cost of a jail facility alone.
   Members considered determining the cost of building a jail that would house 300 or 350 inmates and be constructed to allow for additions and renovations at a later date when more money is available.
   The task force will present the third phase of the needs assessment study to the full county commission at the governing body's regular meeting on Monday, Dec. 8.
   The fourth phase of the study will encompass whether or not the current jail facility can be renovated to accommodate the growing inmate population.
   Overcrowding at the Carter County Jail has been a serious issue for several years. In the early part of November, a class action lawsuit was filed against the county and Sheriff John Henson claiming that overcrowding in the jail had created inhumane living conditions.
   The Carter County Jail is certified to hold 91 inmates and at times has held as many as 250. According to Fair, the jail held 212 inmates on Monday.