State inmate levels contributing to overcrowding in county jails

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Hundreds of state inmates are serving sentences in county jails, contributing to overcrowding issues that have some officers worried about their safety.  

In 2017, a report by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations found, as the state’s felon population has increased, more inmates are remaining in local jails that often lack the resources to support them. 

According to the most recent data from the Tennessee Department of Corrections, Sullivan County has more than one thousand inmates in a facility with room for just over 600 people. 

“It’s very severe and it keeps growing,” said Michael Cole, an administrative sergeant at the Sullivan County Jail. “You’re seeing people lying on the floor, people on top of each other.”

MORE: ‘Dangerous’ Sullivan County jail critically overcrowded, facing decertification

Cole said many officers are concerned about their safety. He said it’s not uncommon to have two officers watching around 300 inmates, heightening the risk for altercations and subsequent lawsuits. 

Conditions related to overcrowding are also putting the department at risk for decertification. In 2018, the jail was recertified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute for another year on the condition that they continue to reduce their inmate count. 

Cole said decertification would result in the loss of state funding that reimburses the facility monthly for housing state inmates. 

Currently, the jail is reimbursed $39 per inmate per day but that rate, set by state lawmakers, already doesn’t cover the cost of keeping them, according to Cole. 

Cole said Sullivan County would like to get their state inmate number down to zero but challenges remain. 

“I try every day to send them to the Department of Corrections but it seems that each facility is overcrowded just as we are,” he said. 

News Channel 11 obtained state inmate numbers for seven Northeast Tennessee counties from TDOC in April 2019. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Carter County: 46 total, 14 sentenced locally
  • Greene County: 74 total, 5 sentenced locally
  • Hawkins County: 82 total 
  • Johnson County: 49 total, 10 sentenced locally 
  • Sullivan County: 183, 30 sentenced locally
  • Unicoi County: 34, 2 sentenced locally
  • Washington County: 123, 18 sentenced locally

TDOC data revealed five of those seven counties were over capacity during that same month. The image below shows the percentage of state inmates compared to the total inmate population in those counties. It also shows how many beds over capacity each jail was during that time. 

At 18 percent, Sullivan County didn’t have the highest percentage of state inmates in April 2019. 

Yet these numbers make it clear that no other county jail in the region is seeing such severe overcrowding.

“I do think that we should have priority over the other counties,” said Cole. 

TDOC Legislative Liaison and Staff Attorney Torrey Grimes said, in a case like this, they do their best to work with the county sheriff and reassign state inmates. 

Grimes said it’s a challenge to balance the needs of 95 counties while also prioritizing the placement of inmates that may be dangerous or have extensive medical needs. He said the state is better suited to deal with these prisoners. 

There’s also some evidence that suggests the state’s problems are systematic.

A 2017 report found Tennessee relies on local jails to house prisoners more than almost any other state. In December 2015, Tennessee had the fourth-highest rate of state prisoners in local jails in the nation, topped only by Louisiana, Texas and Kentucky. 

When asked if this process needs to be reconsidered, Grimes said, “Those are valid questions in the criminal justice reform discussion. These are discussions all the stakeholders need to come to the table on.” 

In the meantime, overcrowding in Sullivan County is only expected to get worse. Cole said their community supervision option is shutting down June 30th. 

He said, “I fear our recidivism rate will go up because there’s no guidance there.” 

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