Controversy opened jail, may close it

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   Controversy has surrounded the Carter County Jail since construction was completed on the facility in the fall of 1980.
   In 1981, it took legal action from the District Attorney, an order from a judge, inquiries from a specially called Grand Jury and the filing of three lawsuits to force the sitting County Commission to open the facility. Now, legal action may result in the closing of the current facility in favor of constructing a new one.
   According to reports in the Oct. 18, 1981 edition of The Star, "The facility, which has been completed since August of last year, has set vacant because commissioners have said there wasn't enough money in the budget to operate it."
   In October of 1981, a Carter County Grand Jury urged commissioners to open the new facility due to the conditions of the jail which existed at the time and instructed the District Attorney General Lewis May to seek legal action against the commission to open the jail and an opinion from the state Attorney General about what the legal recourse for opening the detention facility was.
   That same month, according to reports from The Star, the St. Louis-based National Juvenile Law Center warned that it would file a lawsuit to have the existing jail closed if the new facility was not opened soon.
   County Commissioners in response, set an opening date of Jan. 5, 1981, for the new jail. However, for many, that was not soon enough. The special Grand Jury then instructed May to pursue legal action. "Attorney General May said the action Monday by the Grand Jury left him no alternative but to file a lawsuit against the Commission to have the new facility opened sooner than the date set by the Commission," the Oct. 27, 1981 edition of The Star states. "May said he would seek legal action because of threatened suits by other groups, who also wish to see the new jail opened."
   In November of that year, according to The Star, a $5 million class action lawsuit was filed in Federal Court by the National Jail Institute, which requested the opening of the new jail facility and also asked that the Federal Government appoint a Special Master to take over the operation of the Carter County Jail and investigate claims of mistreatment and inhumane conditions at the jail facility which was still in use.
   At the time of the filing of that lawsuit, May stated that he would request State Jail Inspector Bobby Royston and Health Department officials to accompany him on a tour of the old jail and if the findings necessitated, he would take steps immediately to close the old jail, which had been condemned for approximately 11 years.
   That tour of the old jail resulted in May stating that he was going to file a petition to have all of the inmates removed from that jail. According to reports in the Nov. 11, 1981 edition of The Star, the old jail was found to have exposed wiring, structural deficiencies, inadequate furnishings, inadequate ventilation and inadequate plumbing which had burst in places.
   On Nov. 17 of 1981, the County Commission amid allegations of impropriety voted 20-2 to open the new facility on Nov. 23. At that time, a total of three lawsuits had been filed against the Commission seeking the opening of the jail by groups representing inmates, and a fourth was filed by then Sheriff George Papantoniou.
   But before that day could come, on Nov. 20, Judge Arden Hill ordered for an immediate relocation of the prisoners to begin on that day, stating that there was no reason for the move to be delayed, according to reports from The Star.
   When the new facility was constructed, it was designed to house 45 inmates, despite the fact that the daily average of inmates was over 50. However, a Supreme Court ruling allowed for the "double bunking" of inmates in cells and the facility was later certified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute to house 91 inmates.
   Since the time that the new jail opened, it has become overcrowded and is once again the subject of class action lawsuits.
   Many of those same deficiencies which resulted in the closing of the old detention facility have been cited in two recently filed class action lawsuits against the county over the now 23-year-old detention center.