Jail troubles increase

Photo by John Bryant
Delayed site preparation and delivery of modular housing units to the Carter County Jail are just a couple of reasons why the facility now faces decertification by the state.

  By Abby Morris-Frye

  The delayed arrival of five modular housing units purchased to ease overcrowding at the Carter County Jail, failure to hire additional staff in a timely manner, and a lag in site preparation have prompted a state jail inspector to recommend that the facility lose its state certification.
  County officials and the state, in a private settlement agreement (PSA) resulting from a lawsuit, agreed the units would be in place by Sept. 15, 2004. The county will go before a federal judge next month to find out if the agreement receives approval.
  Melody Gregory, a corrections facility specialist with the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) has stated that, following her recent inspection, she will recommend that certification not be renewed. TCI is a state governing body that oversees jail conditions throughout the state.
  While TCI certification is not a requirement, it provides a county or city government credibility, showing that the jail meets minimum standards. Jails that are certified can often also purchase insurance at a lower premium.
  Gregory said the report she will submit to the TCI Board of Control is not completely negative. "The facility has made improvements. The report is not all bad," she said. "The Sheriff and his staff are doing a good job with the maintenance work." Gregory cited repairs such as improved lighting and ventilation.
  Despite progress, however, Gregory said she will have to recommend that the board revoke certification due to the lagging delivery of the additional housing units and delayed site preparation. Also, additional staff to run the units, which Gregory requested officials employ, have still not been hired.
  "They are still severely overcrowded. Overcrowding has been a problem at this facility for a long time," Gregory said. "I have tried to work with them since 2002 but it just hasn't happened. I have no choice but to recommend that they not be re-certified at this time."
  Carter County Sheriff John Henson agreed the delay in receiving the units was a factor in Gregory's decision. "The overcrowding and the portables being behind were a big part of that," he said.
  The county became the subject of a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville in November, 2003 citing overcrowding and "inhumane conditions" at the jail. A second lawsuit was filed in December, 2003. The two lawsuits were later joined and achieved class-action status.
  In July of this year, the Carter County Commission voted to approve a private settlement agreement with attorneys who had filed the suit. As part of that settlement, the county agreed to ease the overcrowding problem with the purchase of the modular housing units. The county agreed to have the five units in place and operational by Sept. 15, and they have not arrived.
  The judge in the federal lawsuit has not yet approved the PSA, and the county will appear in federal court Jan. 15 to find out if the agreement has been approved.
  Henson stated he was told that some of the units should arrive "sometime next week" but, according to Gregory, all five of the units will not be on site until after the first of the year and the modular units cannot be made operational until all five are installed.
  Gregory's decision regarding the certification was a disappointment to Henson. "I hated to hear it, but, like I have said and she also said, we (the Sheriff's Department) have done everything we could. I can't do anything without getting the County Commission to approve it first. I can't go out and spend money without getting a purchase order and getting it approved," he said.
  Henson said he does not know exactly what is going to be in Gregory's report, but he said he hopes the county will be given a chance to speak to the TCI Board of Control before the board makes its decision. "I haven't seen the paper work on what her recommendations are. Hopefully, we can go down and talk to them in January (when the TCI Board of Control normally meets) and get some of these things done between now and then and maybe we can talk to them and they will change their minds."
  Carter County Mayor Dale Fair also said he hopes to speak to the TCI Board of Control before they make a decision. "She's an inspector and she has to do her job. I respect her decision," Fair said. "When the Control Board meets in January I'll be glad to go down and talk to them."
  Fair stated that if the jail loses its certification, the biggest impact would be on the jail's insurance because, without certification, the jail will be considered "high risk." The lack of certification could also affect reimbursement that the county receives for holding state inmates and the county's ability to defend itself in lawsuits involving the jail.
  Fair said he does not know what impact, if any, decertification of the jail would have on the existing lawsuit.