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Old 03-29-2005, 06:37 PM
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danielle danielle is offline
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Default Article: 14 Midstate jails fail key review, pose safety risk

14 Midstate jails fail key review, pose safety risk

Staff Writer

Overcrowded facilities could leave counties open to lawsuits

One out of every four county jails in Middle Tennessee does not comply with minimum standards set by a state-run jail oversight agency.

Overcrowded facilities, many of them decades old, holding as many as twice the number of inmates they were built for, dot the landscape. A total of 14 jails out of the more than four dozen in the Midstate have lost their state certification after failing annual inspections.

Problem jails present conditions that for inmates are inconvenient at best and unsanitary or dangerous at worst — making the local governments that run them more susceptible to being sued by their charges, with taxpayers picking up at least part of the tab.

Jail administrators counter that they are left with few options as their jail populations swell, while their local governments often can offer little extra money for expansions.

''Most of them are just old facilities that just can't seem to meet the standards they are required to meet today. When you start looking at a jail that's over 30 years old, they just run out of space,'' said Jerry Abston, who as sheriff of Putnam County once ran his county's lockup. He is now executive director of the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the state agency charged with inspecting local jails.

A total of 26 of the 129 jails statewide have been ''decertified'' by Abston's office, a Tennessean review of state data found, for a ratio of about 1 jail in 5. According to Abston, that number isn't unusual. The state has generally averaged 20 to 30 decertified jails at any one time, he said.

''Unfortunately, I'm not surprised, based on the number of letters and calls we get from inmates and their families about the conditions in the jails in Tennessee,'' said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

''Issues of overcrowding, general health concerns, of lack of access to recreational and educational programming, these are very real problems in the jails. People say, 'lock 'em up and throw away the key.' That's not really what the public policy response should be,'' Weinberg said, noting that most inmates in a county jail will return to the local population at some point.

TCI sets basic standards for everything that goes on in a jail, including that the jailers follow basic security procedures and that the inmates are fed and their health looked after. Abston's group says the problems in the 14 decertified jails generally can be ascribed to overcrowding and aging facilities that are often plagued by faulty plumbing.

Exposure to sewage poses obvious health risks for inmates, but damp conditions from leaky pipes, even from water that's clean, also can breed mold and spur illness.

Of the 26 jails in the state that have lost their state certification, the average age of the original buildings is 46.5 years old, according to TCI data. The oldest is in rural, mountainous Bledsoe County, whose original jail was built in 1871, with renovations made in 1995.

The Mayberry-esque vision of a rural county sheriff who knows his inmates by name, who never has more prisoners than beds and who rarely locks up a criminal charged with a violent crime faded from view long ago.

Today, the Midstate's county jails are often overfilled with inmates, with prisoners bedded down in tight quarters, and with people charged with violent crimes mingled with those accused of less serious offenses, TCI inspection reports from 2004 and 2005 noted.

''They don't often have the proper heating and cooling. They don't have sprinkler systems. It's just a lot of things,'' Abston said.

In the past year, the Wayne County Jail was closed by the state fire marshal for numerous health and safety violations, including raw sewage leaking into a basement room where prisoners were housed. At the time it closed, the jail housed 42 inmates; when it opened in 1971, it was built to hold 24.

The county, where the unemployment rate was more than twice the state average in January, is spending several hundred thousand dollars to bring the facility up to state standards. Officials are crunching numbers trying to figure a way to spend even more on an addition to the jail that will be built. In the meantime, the prisoners are being housed in several other counties' jails.

''We're hoping to reopen by the end of April. We're looking very hard at what the next step will be. We've got to do something,'' Wayne County Mayor Willard Pope said.

More recently, the jail in growing Hickman County has become the subject of lawsuits filed by current and former inmates. Built in 1959 for 48 inmates, that jail also has failed to meet minimum state standards.

One of the lawsuits involves an alleged beating of one inmate by another, the result of a lack of space to segregate felons charged or convicted of violent crimes from others.

In 2004, TCI inspectors noted this deficiency at eight of the 14 noncertified jails in Middle Tennessee. Efforts to reach the plaintiffs in the Hickman case were unsuccessful.

There also are allegations that Hickman County Jail's plumbing has outlived its usefulness. According to the TCI inspection of Feb. 10, 2004, raw sewage backed up into a holding area where intoxicated inmates are held. Making adequate repairs to the jail will require a major expenditure, perhaps more than $6 million, if a new jail is built.

''Twenty-seven years ago we were handling drunks and fights and DUIs and public drunkenness,'' said Hickman Sheriff Randal Ward, who inherited ''my jail problem'' when he came into office in 2002. ''Ninety percent of my inmates now are in here because of drugs.''

Today's detainees often have mental issues and are ill from chronic health problems caused and exacerbated by drug abuse, particularly methamphetamine, Ward said.

Abston, as well as sheriffs interviewed for this story, said county jails were overcrowded for three reasons:

• A backlog in the judicial system that keeps defendants longer in county jails before they go to trial.

''You have people who are arrested for murder or burglaries or drugs. They sit there for two years, sometimes 2½ years. These people just sit there for so long, and it costs the county a lot of money,'' Abston said.

He recalled the most notorious criminal case in Cumberland County, that of former county official Byron (Low Tax) Looper, convicted in the October 1998 killing of state Sen. Tommy Burks. The taxpayers of Cumberland County footed the bill for Looper to be incarcerated for 22 months in the county jail before going to trial. (Since receiving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Looper has been held in a state prison.)

• An overflow of state prisoners who spend part of their sentences in local lockups before space is available in a state facility.

Midstate sheriffs said it's not uncommon for some of the larger county jails to hold 40, 50 or more prisoners who have been found guilty in the courts and who are awaiting transfer to a state facility.

''We've shipped off 40 in the last few months, and I'm very thankful. We've still got quite a few. Of course, I understand the state's situation. They've got their problems, too,'' Sheriff Jackie Matheny of Warren County said.

In Coffee County, Sheriff Steve Graves has transferred about 60 inmates to state custody in the past three months and still has about 40 remaining among a jail population that fluctuates between 190 and 200. The county jail's capacity is 132.

''We're looking at any way we can to keep our numbers down. Our judges in the county have looked at alternatives in sentencing. They are getting away from split confinement sentences, where, say, someone is sentenced to six years with 12 months to be served in the Coffee County Jail,'' Graves said.

The state intends to add 2,000 additional prison beds by 2008 to keep up with demand, building the new units at existing state prisons in Bledsoe and Morgan counties.

''All counties have the ability to house state inmates and all of them do. They are reimbursed by the state,'' said Amanda Sluss, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction.

Keeping state prisoners is at the sheriff's discretion, she added. ''If they need to send us an inmate or several inmates all they have to do is contact us and we will make plans to find a location available based on that inmate's classification.''

The state pays the county jails between $18 and $35 per inmate per day for housing inmates who are bound for state-run prisons. The reimbursement pay rate is based on the size of the jail.

''People think I call up the state and say, 'Hey, I'm short today, send me some.' They think we're making a lot of money keeping state prisoners. We get $25 a day per inmate, and I can tell you we're not making money,'' Hickman County's Ward said.

But, he noted, getting rid of all his state prisoners is not a panacea. State-bound prisoners housed in county jails often are put to work mowing grass, picking up litter and cleaning public buildings, for instance.

''If we do get rid of state inmates, we're talking that it would cost the county $400,000 in lost labor. I've got one that is a certified mechanic who works on my patrol cars. He's probably alone saving me $50,000 a year. If I get rid of him, I might as well add $50,000 to my patrol car budget,'' Ward said.

Coffee County also is establishing a drug court, hopefully by June 1, Graves noted. Drug courts, as the name implies, hear only drug cases and lean more to rehabilitation than incarceration.

Even so, he said, his jail will have to expand. The county is exploring a 190- to 200-bed unit that would be attached to the existing jail and cost between $4 million and $6 million.

''We've also looked at a modular system that would cost about $700,000 and give us spaces for 64. Whatever we do we're going to have to do it sooner than later,'' Graves said.

Both Coffee and Warren Counties are expected to regain their certifications this year, according to Abston.

• Sheriffs say local law enforcement is doing a better job of police work, making more arrests. Meanwhile, some of the affected counties are growing quite a bit.

Matheny's jail is among those that don't meet state standards, but it recently opened a new lockup. Inmates and staff have moved into the new building, while their adjacent, older facility is renovated during the next year. Once all the work is complete, the Warren County Jail will have 282 beds, compared with 108 in its former building.

''When I started in 1994, we had 57 people in jail,'' the sheriff recalled. ''It's grown every year. Three years ago, we averaged 201 every day. The last two years, it's been between 185 and 190 every day. I never dreamed it would get to the point that it is now.''
Monica Danielle
On September 22, 2003, my better half came home after 657 days in an Alabama prison!!!

And he's now forever free - passing away from this life and into the next - on January 9, 2010.

My Sweet Wayne
January 21, 1954 - January 9, 2010

I'll always love you.
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