County, law spar on jail

Jeremy Styron

Amidst ongoing pressure from the state to address inmate overcrowding at Loudon County Justice Center, county officials and law enforcement took another stab at a financially palatable option for either renovating the current facility or constructing a freestanding jail and courtroom.

On a request from the Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee, which narrowed construction plans to two proposals last month, officials with Loudon County Sheriff’s Office and the Ninth Judicial District Attorney General’s office gave a presentation Monday during a Loudon County Commission workshop.

“The jail is the problem here,” Russ Johnson, district attorney general, said. “You’re under a plan of action. Loss of certification is the problem, so that’s the priority. That’s the first concern coupled with it, though, the justice center’s tied together. The justice system to get it all under one roof would be a nice option (and) would eliminate some problems we’ve got.”

Law enforcement officials said transportation of inmates, security, a disproportionate inmate-to-jailer ratio and proper categorization were some of the problems facing the county.
LCSO Lt. Jake Keener said that as of early this month, the jail had 175 inmates, including 125 males and 50 females. Keener and Assistant Chief Deputy Jimmy Davis showed commission photos of inmates sleeping on floors and crowded into common areas inside the current facility.
Davis said one of his main concerns was officer safety, noting that typically, three deputies are on patrol at the jail and another operates the control room.
“Those three deputies can be outnumbered by just the individuals you see in this photograph,” Davis said. “Now add 30 more males to that. They pop the door, those people decide they want to take over the jail they can, which means all 170 inmates can be out, and then I’ve got four officers that are victims themselves, so my problem is the safety and security of my officers and the facility, and then you’ve got the community after that.
“This is one of the key problems of some of the design issues in our current facility that obviously need to be addressed, and overcrowding just compounds that danger,” he added.
In addition to the two main plans, LCSO and the district attorney also presented a third option for about $16.5 million that included a cheaper courtroom scheme.
Johnson said the $31 million plan, which would provide for the county’s jail and courtroom needs for decades, would be a good fit for Centre 75 and help in jump-starting the business park.
“This is the high dollar amount that everybody’s scared of,” Russell said. “It’s the elephant in the room, but I want you all to just look at it and consider it.”
Commissioner Van Shaver said he wanted the jail committee to come back with a single preferred option.
“I would love for the committee to vote on one plan and say, ‘Here is what the committee recommends that the county commission do’,” Shaver said. “I mean that was the whole purpose of the committee. You brought us back a whole plethora of things — Centre 75 — the whole nine yards. That committee I would have thought was charged — bring back your proposal.”
Commissioner Bill Satterfield, who sits on the jail panel along with Commissioners Leo Bradshaw and Henry Cullen, said members of the Corrections Partnership Committee asked members of the county board how much they were willing to spend on a new jail and did not get any answers.
“That not being done, then we proceeded and looked at everything,” Satterfield said. “We’ve gone forward. We’ve come backward, and it’s really hard once you sit in one these things (meetings), it’s really hard to separate the jail and the courts. I mean they kind of go hand in hand. When you do one, you look back and you’ve got to do the other.”
The jail panel decided on two options and agreed to put them before commission for consideration, he said.
“If you had charged this committee to come back with a recommendation not to exceed (a certain dollar amount), then tonight you would have a recommendation,” Satterfield said.
Shaver said costs associated with a project like the jail has the propensity to balloon beyond what commission is willing to pay.
“Right now, the closest thing you’ve got to the rest of the jail is right here,” he said about the cheapest option. “And it’s just easy to throw another $5 million on it, throw another $5 million — just put $31 million in it, and that’s not even close to what the cost $31 million is going to be. That’s just that building sitting (with) there no furniture, fixtures (or) site prep or anything.
“You all have spent since we got elected looking at this stuff, and now you’ve essentially brought it back to us, (and said) ‘Here’s all the possibilities,” he added. “Pick one. Pick one as the committee and send it to us, and we’ll either up it or down it.”
Satterfield said he thought members of commission were “afraid” of throwing their support behind any specific plan because of the potential for negative blowback from the public related to raising property taxes.
“I don’t call that ‘afraid’,” Commissioner Earlena Maples said. “I call that ‘cautious with taxpayer money.’ I don’t go out and blow my money personally, and I don’t intend to blow the taxpayers’ money. I’ve never done it. I don’t intend to do it, and I think we ought to treat the taxpayers’ money just like we would our own. Would you go out and do this with your own money?”
Johnson said jail committee members had an “impossible task” if commission is not willing to spend anything on building a jail.
“I think if you want us to make a recommendation on how to address the jail problem, which is going to require building a new jail, you can’t do that for zero dollars,” Russell said, noting that part of his goal was to present a plan that would serve the county’s needs for the next four decades.
Cullen said while he understood the county’s need for a jail, a property tax increase would be a tough sell to the public. Shaver has estimated that $5 million amounts to a 2 1/2 cent increase to the tax rate. County officials have long contended that either renovating the current jail or building a new facility will require a tax hike.
“I understand that we’re probably stuck with just a jail, but I wanted for a minute to look down the road and say, ‘If we really wanted something to last 40 years that could serve all purposes and keep everything under one roof there it is’,” he said. “I realized coming in here this wasn’t going to fly, but I wanted you to see it, and 40 years down the road someone’s going to say, ‘Well, we should have listened to Russell Johnson back then and built it’.”
Satterfield said he did not think the commission would approve any of the options currently on the table.
“There’s no way to build anything without a tax increase right now,” he said. “I think any of these plans will pass commission muster on an up or down vote to build one of them.”
He asked Russell what would happen if the county does not renovate the jail.
“When the feds come in and take over, that would be the (main) problem,” Russell said. “How close we are to that? I’m saying that we are.”
Satterfield floated the idea of taking no action on the jail. According to county officials, allowing the facility to remain decertified will open the county up for potential litigation.
“And then you’ll have the judge come in and say you’re going to build that $31 million (jail) or you’re going to be fined for it,” Davis said.
Shaver said a potential mandate from a judge “changes everything.”
“When you go and look at the taxpayer and say, ‘Hey the judicial branch has come along and taken the authority out of the legislative branch, and we now have no choice.’ … To jump up and voluntarily do it when … we don’t even know really which one (plan) it’ll be, that’s a lot different political sale.”
“But why pay $60,000 and $75,000 for feasibility studies when you don’t do what they recommend?” Davis said about the jail panel.
Near the end of the lengthy discussion, Satterfield considered disbanding the jail committee altogether.
Davis sharply disagreed with that suggestion.
“I’m sorry I’m upset, but you’re talking about just getting rid of all this work,” Davis said. “It’s thousands of dollars that’s been done. When I’ve got officers going in there (with a) 50-to-2 (inmate-to-jailer ratio), you’re not the ones who have to go to the family and say they’ve been beat up or they’re in the hospital or they’re on disability. I do. I’ve got to go to these homes at night where these houses have been broken into and say that guy should have been in jail, but he’s not. I take that serious. That’s my charge; that’s my job. That’s what you pay me for is to make sure these citizens know these people breaking these laws that he (Russell) prosecutes are in jail where they need to be, not out here on probation.”
He said the jail committee worked “tirelessly” to make progress on renovation plans.
“We take it very serious because we’re the ones responsible,” Davis said. “You’re responsible for the money; we’re responsible the safety of this community. If you’re just turning people out then we’re just spinning our wheels for nothing.”
Russell and Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson agreed that the jail committee will reconvene and vote to recommend one option to present to commission.
In other business, commission considered forming ad hoc committees to address a plan to potentially sell Matlock Bend Landfill to a private entity and add a surcharge to the tipping fee to mitigate anticipated shortfalls in the closure and post-closure care of the landfill.