Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 21, 2018

‘They keep coming and I can’t get them out’

Some rural jails at twice capacity as counties struggle to build more

When officers do hourly security checks at the Loudon County Jail, they’re often walking into a potent brew of danger.

Officially, the jail’s capacity is 91 inmates. But the actual population runs between 170 and 180 on average and was up to 210 inmates at one point this summer.

Because of overcrowding, as many as 50 men have to be crammed into an inmate pod that has 32 beds. And because there’s no room to separate inmates by level of offense, they range from a teenager accused of breaking into a car to an inmate who tortured and killed his victim.

Fueled by the drug crisis, nearly half of Tennessee jails are at or above capacity. Many counties are expanding their jails to accommodate the overflow.

“When I’ve got two officers walking into a block of 50 males, I don’t care what kind of person you are. You are not going to win that fight,” says Jimmy Davis, chief deputy at the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office.

“With twice the population, not only are we running out of beds, we’re running out of floor space. They keep coming and I can’t get them out. And that’s a problem.”

Loudon County is not alone. Across Tennessee, county jails are overflowing, creating a dangerous situation for both inmates and those charged with their supervision.

Across the state, jails are converting hallways to bed space and double-bunking inmates in cells.

In Blount County, which has about 539 inmates in a jail with 350 beds, the jail has purchased “boats,” plastic shells fitted with a mattress so inmates aren’t sleeping directly on the floor.

“Where we’ve got cells built for two people, we’re having to house three and four people in them,” explains Chris Cantrell, deputy chief at the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re making do, and we’ve been overcrowded for so long, it’s just become what it is. Corrections officers come in knowing that and work hard every day, admirably. It’s just what we do.”

Of the state’s 120 county jails, detention facilities, annexes and workhouses, almost half were at or above capacity on Aug. 31, Tennessee Department of Corrections data reveals.

Some facilities were severely overcrowded: Hamblen County had 444 inmates crammed into a facility with only 255 beds. Putnam County had a population of 434 with beds for 252. Roane County, which opened a new 170-bed jail in 2009, has routinely been over capacity since 2012. It had 320 inmates as of Aug. 31.

The state’s larger cities are faring somewhat better:

l Hamilton County’s jail was slightly overcrowded at 105.5 percent capacity as of Aug. 31 (533 inmates in a 505-bed facility). Its Silverdale Detention Center is not overcrowded.

l Davidson County’s jail is operating below capacity.

l Knox County’s smaller jail and the work release center are not overcrowded, but the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility is with 1,194 inmates in 1,036 beds.

A strain on the system

Corrections officials including Cantrell and Davis give credit to their overworked-but-dedicated staff for preserving peace in their crowded jails, however fragile that peace might be. They’ve been doing more with less for years now to maintain standards of inmate care in the face of overwhelming numbers.

Jails are inherently less stable and more chaotic than state prisons because they serve a more transient population. They are local holding facilities overseen by counties and run by sheriff’s offices or other local law enforcement agencies and are generally designed for short-term stays by people awaiting trial or serving short sentences for misdemeanors.

Misdemeanors are relatively minor crimes for which the maximum sentence is less than a year. A misdemeanor is sometimes called an “1129,” which stands for 11 months and 29 days.

A felony is a crime that carries a sentence of one year or more. In Tennessee, felonies range from Class E, the lowest level, which includes theft of property or services worth more than $500 but less than $1,000, to Class A, which includes second-degree murder.

Felons usually serve out their terms in prisons, which are operated by the state and the private prison company CoreCivic (formerly CCA.)

So when jails become overcrowded, it puts strain on the systems of containment and organization – like the classification system that separates inmates who are not compatible (such as members of opposing gangs) and those who should be segregated based on common sense, such as first-time minor offenders and violent criminals.

The Loudon County Jail has only one large dorm-style female block, which means everyone mixes together. When that happens, the level of risk goes up and jail staff has to work harder to maintain order.

“How we classify and house our inmates is the biggest issue we face,” Davis points out.

“You can be in here on a bad check, a minor misdemeanor, and right next to you in the block is someone who’s killed her husband or has a murder charge, which we currently have.”

Many over-capacity jails cycle in and out of decertification by the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the agency that sets standards, inspects and certifies local jails and detention centers for adult offenders and trains jail personnel.

Overcrowding isn’t the only issue that can put a jail out of compliance, but it’s a big factor and one that can severely hinder other functions that are essential for good jail management.

“Other than not being able to care for inmates to our standard and provide sufficient housing that is humane, it becomes more dangerous for our officers and the other inmates,” Davis says.

“And one of the main reasons we got decertified is that we could not maintain that level of security for inmates as well as our officers.”

Drug crimes fuel overcrowding

Jail and county officials cite several leading factors contributing to the jail overcrowding problem.

One of the major causes is drug-related crime stemming from substance abuse. Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country, and while heroin, opioids and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl grab headlines because of overdose deaths, methamphetamine abuse is still the biggest problem in rural counties, along with property crimes such as burglaries and theft that addicts resort to in order to feed their addictions.

“Like other rural districts in Tennessee, the vast majority of our cases have roots in drug addiction and/or mental health issues – not just possession cases, but drug fueled thefts, assaults, etc.,” says John Partin, the elected public defender for Tennessee’s 31st Judicial District, which includes Warren and Van Buren counties.

“Recidivism continues to be a major problem in this area. Again, I attribute that primarily to addiction and mental health issues.”

Partin says that both the judges and the district attorney’s office in his district support alternative sentencing, specifically long term inpatient drug rehabilitation programs in lieu of incarceration.

But the jails in his district fill up quickly. Van Buren County recently opened a new jail to alleviate overcrowding, and Warren County approved funding for a jail expansion. Both jails were over capacity as of Aug. 31, TDOC data show.

Another cause of overcrowding is mental illness. Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And an estimated 80 percent of women with substance abuse disorders – and 60 percent of men – suffer from some kind of sexual trauma that hinders their ability to kick drugs, according to Duane Slone, a circuit court judge for Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson and Sevier counties and a nationally known speaker on drug recovery courts.

A third significant factor is the high cash bail that many jurisdictions set for relatively minor offenses. When people can’t afford bail and court fees, they sit in jail until their court date, which can hinge on whether a jurisdiction has enough judges to churn through the docket.

Last month, an average 17 percent of the total jail population in Tennessee were people awaiting trial on misdemeanors. In some county jails, the percentage is much higher.

At the end of August, for example, more than a third of the 413 inmates at the Madison County Justice Center were awaiting trial on misdemeanors. In the Lauderdale County Jail, it was more than half. In McNairy County, it was 55 percent.

All three jails were at more than 100 percent capacity.

At the Coffee County Jail, 186 of the 375 inmates – half the population – were awaiting trial on misdemeanor. That jail was 94 percent full on Aug. 31 but is routinely beyond its maximum.

But at the Shelby County Justice Center, which has 10 percent of the state’s jail inmates and is routinely over capacity, a whopping 86 percent of inmates are awaiting trial – though the vast majority are charged with felonies.

“The obvious problem with the dependence on money bail in a city like Memphis is no one has money,” explains Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a criminal justice reform organization.

“If money is one of the keys to getting out of jail and no one has money, you’re staying in jail.”

In June 2016, Just City launched Community Bail Funds in both Nashville and Memphis.

Since June 2016, the Nashville Community Bail Fund has posted cash bail for more than 335 people who could not afford it and allowed them to resume their lives while awaiting trial. Ninety-seven percent of those clients returned to court to face charges, and 25 percent of their cases were dismissed.

“Money should have nothing to do with the decision to keep someone in jail or not,” Spickler says.

“The idea that (bail) creates some incentive to appear in court has pretty much been invalidated by the success of bail funds.”

A boon in jail construction

To accommodate the influx of inmates, more than a dozen counties around Tennessee are in some stage of expanding their jails. It’s a process that requires approval from county commissions, and funding.

Tipton County opened a $3 million expansion in February that increased beds from 122 to 201. It has been well in excess of capacity since it opened, reaching 252 inmates in May.

In Franklin County, which has about 213 inmates in a jail built for 114, construction is underway on an addition that will cost at least $9 million and accommodate 283 inmates.

The Madison County Criminal Justice Complex, with 304 beds for 413 inmates, including 153 awaiting trial on misdemeanors, has been out of compliance with state standards for the past few years. County officials are looking to borrow $30 million to add at least 124 beds and renovate the 20-year-old building.

After years out of compliance, Hamblen County’s jail is reaching a crisis point, with severe overcrowding and a badly dated, moldy facility. Officials have long discussed building a $35 million facility, but the mayor and county commissioners have become frustrated by lack of progress and fear that problems at the jail will lead to lawsuits.

In Rhea County, chronic overcrowding at the 87-bed jail led to disciplinary actions by the state. Preliminary work is now being completed on a new justice center with up to 290 beds that could cost up to $28 million.

And Madison, Claiborne, Roane, Sullivan, Wilson and Williamson counties are some of the other counties that are currently exploring plans to expand existing detention facilities or build new ones.

In Loudon County, which borders Knox, construction began this summer on a $15 million addition adjacent to the existing jail. Most jail functions, including 180 new beds and several new program rooms, will go to the new facility, while the existing building will be converted to storage, medical needs, and a minimum-security dorm for women.

It’s a scaled-down version of what some had hoped for – a multi-purpose justice center that would have included judicial offices and court rooms. But that would have been much more expensive. The new construction, which is scheduled to open by early 2020, is being built without a tax increase – though the county will have to come up with money to hire 20 new jail employees.

‘Wait and see’

Lately, Loudon County has succeeded in stabilizing the jail population, even dropping the numbers a little to 171 in August. But that’s still near double capacity. So the criminal justice community has begun to work together to reduce the number of people flowing into the jail.

In the last few years, a second general sessions court judge was added to help clear dockets faster.

With as many as 80 percent of jail inmates awaiting trial because they can’t or won’t make bond, the district attorney is trying to reach more plea agreements and lower bonds for non-violent crimes so that people who are not a danger to the community can go home.

And because an estimated 90 percent of the jail population has committed some type of addiction-based crime, there’s talk about implementing alternative sentencing and jail diversion programs that reduce or eliminate jail time for addicts who agree to enroll in supervised treatment and support services such as those offered by the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a substance abuse and behavioral health services organization that serves 25 counties in East Tennessee. Such programs are gaining momentum around the country as local government, judicial, and law enforcement officials seek to address the roots of crime in their communities and cut recidivism.

“I think our community knows we are doing everything we can,” Loudon County’s Davis adds.

“We will wait and see when this new jail opens what state we are in.”

But even with a bigger jail on the horizon, officials are already anticipating it will fill up. That’s why, long before the new addition opens, they’re planning for the next one.

“Even with the facility that we are building currently, there’s a place being cleared off right behind it and we already have a design for additional pods to go back behind there that will take us up closer to 300 beds,” Davis says.

“We’ve already got a mechanism in place where all you have to do is pull the trigger and start the addition onto the addition.

“Because unless something major happens, I don’t see us going down. I really don’t. And that’s very unfortunate.”