District attorney: Pain pill arrest surge jamming area jails

Sheriffs seeing spike in female inmate population

Bob Fowler knoxnews.com

KINGSTON — Three out of the four county jails in his judicial district are overcrowded, 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson said, and a big part of the problem is a growing population of women being locked up for pain pill-related crimes.

That trend became starkly evident to him during a drug roundup in Loudon County in February, Johnson said. He said he looked around the room of suspects, and the vast majority of those being booked for pain pill cases were women.

Women, he said, “are fast becoming addicted and drawn into this horrible pain pill epidemic.”

Johnson, who also represents Roane, Morgan and Meigs counties, said over the past year or so, he’s noticed more women in general sessions courts in his district on prescription drug charges, and more grand jury cases involving women and pain pills.

“When I started hearing from the sheriffs that their female populations were staying anywhere from 50 percent to 150 percent over normal, I knew that we had a problem,” Johnson said.

The jail has 172 beds, with 34 of them set aside for women, Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton said. Last Friday, the jail had 47 women out of a total population of more than 200 inmates, he said.

Stockton estimated that 95 percent of the female inmates are there because of problems linked to the “abuse of prescription pain pills.” He said crimes such as shoplifting, thefts and burglaries are the result of “trying to keep that (pain pill) habit supplied.”

In Loudon County, there have been two additions to the jail since the justice center opened in 1974, said Lt. Teresa Smith, jail administrator.

The jail now has 96 beds. With some rearranging of cell areas, there are now 34 beds available for women, Smith said. But the jail population has been averaging about 158 inmates, with some 31 percent of that total — or around 50 inmates — women.

“I believe that most of the shoplifting charges, most of the public intoxications, the forgeries, the burglaries, the thefts, it’s very obvious most of that these days trace back to their need for a pill,” Smith said. “And they (the female defendants) are funding that anyway they can.”

In Loudon County, a company has been selected to do a feasibility study of what to do about the jail.

That study is in response to a state jail inspector’s findings and the resulting mandate to come up with a plan of action to address overcrowding.

In Morgan County, the 46-bed jail has cells for 14 women, Sheriff Glen Freytag said. On Monday, there were 21 women and 68 men incarcerated.

Freytag estimates that at least 80 percent of the women inmates are there for “pill problems.”

“Everybody tries to work together to get it off the streets,” Freytag said of pain pills and the other illicit drug that’s spurring many arrests — methamphetamine. “It’s an ongoing problem and it’s kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s affecting about every jail in this district and every jail across the state.”

According to Johnson, “the dynamic of female pill abuse causes more problems than just the need for more female beds or pods in the jail.”

“When the female caretaker is more worried about finding and buying her next oxycodone, roxycodone or Xanax, then the kids go without the food or the parenting that they need,” Johnson said.

The prosecutor said when mothers go to jail, their children often go into Department of Children’s Services custody, “putting strain on an already tenuous, overstressed system.”