ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — Citing an inability to recruit and retain employees due to low pay, outgoing Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford is ending a contract to house federal prisoners that netted the county about a million dollars in each of the past two reported fiscal audits.
Lunceford told News Channel 11 a couple dozen of the 60 or so inmates had already been picked up and relocated. He warned that after several years of attempts to get higher pay approved — corrections officers start at about $26,000 a year — conditions have become unsafe to house extra inmates.
“I would have had to have been funded over the last couple of years, three years, to the point where I could retain, hire and retain employees,” Lunceford said. “We can’t do that anymore. We don’t even have people applying.”
Lunceford, who narrowly lost to Mike Fraley in the Republican primary for sheriff, will complete his second term in September. He said since implementing the federal contract several years ago, its revenues have helped pay the bond note on the jail and allowed for important one-time expenses that have allowed modernization of the department.
The county has been bringing in about $2 million annually through housing federal and state inmates, Lunceford said. After the jail payment, “what’s left over they allow us to use to make one-time purchases for equipment, things of that sort so we don’t have to go back to the citizens for tax money, local tax money.”
Lunceford said the federal contract pays well above the $37 the state pays to house its inmates and has other financial advantages as well. He said the proceeds that haven’t gone to the jail note have helped buy new vehicles, implement what he said is one of the most advanced IT systems in the area and send staff to important trainings, among other things.
“Losing that money, all of that extras … that’s made this sheriff’s department successful to where the crime’s down 41% — ‘we’re very successful — that’s going to go away, and the commission is going to have to come up with a million dollars a year to make the payment on the jail,” Lunceford said.
Carter County’s audits show the “prisoner board” program for federal inmates brought in just over $1 million in fiscal 2019 and $981,071 in fiscal 2020. State inmate revenues were $663,092 in fiscal 2019, $588,548 in fiscal 2020.
The department’s entire expense budget in fiscal 2020 was $5.6 million.
Even if the county commission were to implement major pay raises for the department, Lunceford said it would take at least a year to get staffing back close to where it needs to be. He said jail corrections officers are typically the stable of employees from whom road officers are selected. Those with the ability and inclination get sent on to the academy and eventually become road officers and/or investigators.
As far as the federal contract, which wasn’t in place when he took office, “then you have to approach the federal authorities with renegotiations, and this is gonna put a sour taste in their mouth and maybe they sign another contract, maybe they don’t,” Lunceford said.
“That won’t be my call. But this is not a quick fix. We didn’t get here overnight, we can’t fix it overnight.”
That said, Lunceford called the use of the federal inmate contract to augment the department’s budget “imperative.”
“Either that or you go back 20 years to where you have no technology, your cars have 200,000 miles on them, you’re putting your officers at risk, their uniforms are torn and tattered, they have no training. Yeah, you can. You can cut all those things. We can (also) go back to gravel roads.”