County inches forward on jail

Jeremy Styron

More than two months after Tennessee Corrections Institute decertified Loudon County Jail, County Commission on Monday moved one step closer to a vote on building a new facility to mitigate inmate overcrowding, although an extra wrench has been thrown into the decision-making process.

Ninth Judicial Attorney General Russ Johnson, General Sessions Judge Rex Dale and Sheriff Tim Guider presented the County Corrections Partnership Committee’s recommendation to construct a free-standing facility at Centre 75 Business Park in Loudon for $31 million that would include all jail, courtroom and office space in one place.

About a dozen jailers and deputies attended the standing-room-only meeting.
Johnson told commissioners that one of the main problems with the current jail is the classification of different types of inmates and inadequate space to house men and woman.
“We didn’t decertify us; TCI did. The state did,” Johnson said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to keep the inmate population low at Loudon County Jail.”

He said DA and court officials have taken numerous steps to reduce the number of people in the jail, including bond reductions, issuing citations and allowing offenders to take furlough leave while they work on their addiction problems.
Johnson said that on any given day, the jail contains 35-40 women in a 13-person pod, many of whom were arrested on drug-related charges.
“You go in and you talk to them, the vast majority of them are only there because of drug addiction issues that could be treated through programs that other places have in place that Loudon County does not as one way of reducing the jail population, reducing recidivism and helping the daughters and granddaughters of our citizens get over the problems they have when coming in contact with the criminal justice system,” Johnson said, noting that fights among inmates are a frequent occurrence.
“Every single person here, even the very newest ones here that haven’t been on the job too long have already been in fights in the jail, inmate fights, where they’ve had to go in at their peril and separate themselves,” Johnson said about officers in attendance. “Now that we’re decertified, if one of them (is) injured, the liability goes up because we’re on notice that there is a problem that we’re not doing anything about it to protect them, so the potential for lawsuits is ripe.”
He admonished commission to consider alternative measures to reduce overcrowding by helping inmates overcome the underlying problems associated with alcohol and drug use.
“Me personally, I think you need to start with jail programs right now,” he said. “TCI said yes you should have done it before now. If you do nothing tonight, please start exploring getting programs in the jail. Look at some offsite ways … to provide services that will help give you some relief.”
County officials expressed uncertainly on whether the Centre 75 property could be used for a non-industrial purpose. The site was originally prepared for industrial use in the early 2000s through a $1 million federal grant.
“If it cannot be located in Centre 75 — the whole plan tonight is predicated on a new multimillion facility located in Centre 75 — if it cannot be or until that question is answered absolutely, (we’re) spinning wheels on it,” Commissioner Van Shaver said.
Johnson said he didn’t think the question would change the jail committee’s proposal.
“Really what we need is a new jail-justice center if it has to be somewhere else other than Center 75,” Johnson said. “You asked us to look for a location, and that’s the location we came up with.”
Guider told commission he was primarily concerned with safety inside the current jail.
“They’re just normal people, and I’m just concerned for the safety of them and the safety of the inmates,” Guider said. “… I would hate to see them get hurt in these conditions, but there’s fights up there every day people. You don’t get the big picture. They’re in there every day breaking up fights.”
Commissioner David Meers asked Guider how many new officers would be needed now to assuage personnel concerns.
“I would say a minimum of two to make me feel better per shift,” Guider said.
Commissioner Bill Satterfield, who sits on the jail committee with Commissioners Henry Cullen and Leo Bradshaw, said he was also concerned about officer safety.
“The thing is I would hate for something to happen to one of our officers while we’re trying to decide what to do,” Satterfield said. “I don’t think any amount of money actually offsets a life.”
Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said commission’s decision on the jail was crucial because taking the wrong step could incur “astronomical” costs.
“And they are forever,” Bradshaw said. “We can do it right on this front end and pay it off eventually, whereas if we do it wrong recurring (costs are) going to hang around.”
In considering financing options for the new jail, Rex said commission, in lieu of a property tax increase, had the option of instituting a wheel tax or increasing the county’s litigation fee by $50. He said an increased litigation fee would draw about $7 million during a 30-year period. A new fee would require legislation from the state legislature.
“I would request that be put on the agenda immediately,” Dale said. “The longer we wait in doing something like this — legislation comes up in January when they (state lawmakers) start the new session. If this is something the county wants to do, we need to get the legislation drafted, in place and ready to go when the state meets again early next year.”
Shaver said a $50 litigation fee would be in addition to the current fee.
“I think we’ve about used up our litigation tax meter,” Shaver said.
“I understand your position Mr. Shaver, but this is a user fee,” Dale said. “Only the inmates would be paying this and only the responsible persons in lawsuits, and so the users of the system should bear the burden of this type of tax instead of putting it on the property taxpayers.”
Bradshaw said after consulting with County Attorney Bob Bowman, he thought the county could still build on the Centre 75 site if it got permission from the federal government.
“Originally, I thought it was truly dead in the water,” Bradshaw said after the meeting. “And I asked Mr. Bowman to look at it, and he actually came up with an answer this morning that raised a possible out.”
During a follow-up interview, Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson said the board will take up a vote on the jail when the county gets an OK from the government, which could take place before the next regular meeting in early September.
“If we get that done before Sept. 6, we’ll get it on (the agenda) at that time,” he said. “… As soon as we get confirmation that we can or cannot, then we will vote on the recommendation from that County Corrections Partnership Committee.”