‘Dangerous’ Sullivan County jail critically overcrowded, facing decertification

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For the Tri-Cities largest jail, experiencing the highest number of inmates to date, overcrowding is nothing new. In fact, it is nothing new to most jail systems across the state of Tennessee. 

Emerging from the wake of a decades-long problem are new consequences.

The Sullivan County jail is inching closer every day to 1000 inmates. The jail only has 619 beds and at last check, a total of 971 incarcerated. 

The obvious problem is straightforward, there are too many inmates and not enough beds. This forces more than 300 inmates to sleep on the floor. 

But, stemming from the overcrowding is a host of issues now threatening to decertify the jail and bring about federal lawsuits if something does not change. 

MAIN PROBLEMS 

Tense and violent environment for staff and inmates. Not only does overcrowding remain an issue itself, but the sheer number of inmates packed into tight quarters at the jail also creates a hostile environment that cannot be managed properly by the staff.

According to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, this puts officers in the direct line of danger when tempers flare. It also heightens violence within cells.

Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell said inmate-on-inmate violence is increasing by the day. 

Inmate James Mullins, incarcerated on drug charges, sees violent exchanges daily.

“People are gonna be people. You crowd them in like sardines there is gonna be problems,” says Mullins. 

More staff needed desperately. Coupled with the problem of overcrowding is the lack of officers to keep the high number of inmates in line.

“It’s a very dangerous job for the officers,” says Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy. 

As the inmate population continues to rise, the number of jail employees has stayed the same.

Sheriff Cassidy said often times there are only two officers watching around 300 inmates. Patrol officers describe this as “impossible to control.” 

Linear system puts the burden on jail staff. The design of the Sullivan County jail by nature requires more officers than the modern style of jail.

In the “pod” system, which is widely accepted as the standard for jails today, inmates are segregated into smaller, pod-style cells that house only a few inmates at a time and allow for direct supervision.

This system requires fewer officers to function properly. The Sullivan County jail utilizes the “linear” system, which is outdated, labor intensive and requires more staffing.

Inmates are piled in jail cells that can more accurately be described as large stalls. These cells are designed to hold anywhere from 12 to over 30 inmates.

But at the Sullivan County jail, most of these cells are housing double the amount of people they were designed to hold. 

“Jail is not supposed to be pleasant anyway, I understand that and there is no problem with that. But right now the cell I’m in, it’s a 16 man cell. We have 21 men sleeping on the floor,” says Mullins. 

Inmate classification is almost non-existent. Because the jail is so overcrowded, it is running out of space to segregate its most dangerous and violent inmates.

Jails consist of maximum security and general population areas. At the Sullivan County jail, due to the number of inmates and lack of room, many maximum security inmates must be housed in general population.

According to jail staff, this causes a majority of the ongoing inmate-on-inmate violence. 

Out of space. A host of issues are a result of the overcrowding at the jail, but the Sheriff regrets that overcrowding prevents the jail from hosting re-entry programming to help inmates get back into society.

Church services and state-required programming are all that takes place at the jail. Sheriff Cassidy said he would like to introduce additional programming and classes for inmates, but there is simply no room. 

Fundamentally flawed. When the jail was built in the 1980s, Sheriff Cassidy says it was already outdated. 

This has caused the county to play “catch up” for all the years following and has created an ever-lasting burden on the county and the taxpayer.

Today, the over 30-year-old building has a host of issues that need to be resolved just to keep the building functional. 

TRI-CITIES JAILS BY THE NUMBERS 

While no county jail system in the Tri-Cities comes close to the overcrowding in Sullivan County, five county jails are overcrowded according to the most recent monthly jail reports through the Tennessee Department of Corrections. 

The two counties that are not currently overcrowded are Unicoi and Greene. 

The following numbers show the comparison of county jails that are overcrowded in the Tri-Cities. 

  • JOHNSON COUNTY- BEDS 114 / POPULATION 137 
  • HAWKINS COUNTY- BEDS 266 / POPULATION 291 
  • CARTER COUNTY- BEDS 293 / POPULATION 301
  • WASHINGTON COUNTY- BEDS 620 / POPULATION 650 
  • SULLIVAN COUNTY- BEDS 619 / POPULATION 971

Sullivan County VS. Knox County 

Knox County in East Tennessee has a total population that is three times the size of Sullivan. However, they have a similar number of inmates housed in their county jails. 

  • Knox: Around 1400 inmates / Sullivan: Almost 1000 inmates
  • Knox: 1371 beds / Sullivan: 619 beds 

Knox County also utilizes a pod system, which requires less staffing and is less labor intensive than Sullivan’s linear system. 

In addition, the Knox County jail has double the amount of officers working on any given shift. Sullivan County has 18 employees working at a time compared to Knox County’s 44 employees. 

CONSEQUENCES ON THE HORIZON 

The Sullivan County jail has been under scrutiny by the Tennessee Corrections Insitute for the past five years. In 2014, the jail nearly lost its certification because of overcrowding and deficiencies that were discovered during a TCI inspection. 

Ever since, they have been operating under a “plan of action” status, meaning county officials must show progress in order to retain their certification. 

In 2018, the jail was recertified for another year by TCI under the continued promise to address overcrowding. 

Failure to come up with a plan to solve the problem will ultimately result in the loss of the jail’s certification. 

“We are gonna be decertified and once we are decertified we are gonna have a whole lot of other issues,” says Sheriff Cassidy. 

The Sullivan County Sheriffs Office says the situation is “critical.” If the jail loses its certification it would lose state funding and potentially put taxpayers on the hook for paying looming federal lawsuits. 

With the loss of certification, the state or the federal government can come in and mandate what will happen to the jail and how much it will cost. Sheriff Cassidy says this will not fare well for the county, and voting on small changes now will pay off in the long run. 

“It will be a small tax burden just to get our staff to where it needs to be for the protection of the inmates and protection of the officers. Whereas if we don’t do that, you’re talking a federal lawsuit that’s gonna cost a whole lot more money than you would ever believe,” says Cassidy. 

According to Cheif Carswell, the cost of not doing something is higher than taking action. 

WHAT’S BEING DONE

As far as expanding the jail, the county is in preliminary stages of researching the proper course of action. A Knoxville architect, Michael Brady Inc., was hired at a budget of $225,000 to devise a plan to build a new facility or expand the current one. 

But first, the SCSO says staffing must be addressed. A request for 32 new employees currently awaits a vote by the Sullivan County Commission. 

This would cost 2 million dollars at a 5.5 percent tax increase. The commission will have to figure out how to fund any jail expansion project that will follow, either by adding more money to the jail budget or by raising taxes. 

Some commissioners are torn, saying this is simply not in the budget and they do not want to raise taxes. But for Sheriff Cassidy, it’s a small price to pay to thwart expensive and damaging lawsuits that he says could follow if no action is taken. 

A work session is scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 9 with the Sullivan County Commission. The commission is set to vote on funding the addition of those 32 new employees the following Thursday, May 16. 

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