Jail set for expansion

Sep. 27, 2013 @ 11:33 PM

The sheriff’s office is getting set to start work on the next expansion of its minimum security facility, and also looking at alternative ways to keep up with the growing population at the jail.

The minimum security facility has already been built out to its original planned capacity of 228, including 48 beds for women. The next expansion would add two more pods of 64 beds each for men.

Sheriff Ron Seals said his office has taken plans for the next expansion to the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the state agency that inspects jails and reviews plans for expansions or new facilities. He expects to be able to move ahead soon.

“Hopefully the completion date will be around July of next year,” he said.

Overcrowding remains an issue at the original jail located beside the Sevier County Courthouse, which is now used to house high security prisoners, and the minimum security facility on Old Knoxville Highway.

The population at the minimum security wing at one point this week was 273, including some inmates moved from the higher security jail while part of it was being pained, Seals said.

The population at the higher security jail was still 321, well above its stated capacity of 214.

Those numbers can vary, but it’s still clear that the new wing will probably be filled when it opens, the sheriff said.

Overcrowding is a problem by facilities around Tennessee, including the state’s prisons. In fact, Seals said, many of the inmates are repeat offenders who have been released early from prison sentences due to the overcrowding there.

“Our prisons are full, too, so they’re letting these people out and most of them are right back in jail,” he said.

Long-term solutions have been examined locally, but the number of people being sent to jail is increasing even faster than anticipated, Seals said. “It seems like we’re accelerating the number of people we put in,” he said.

One measure being considering could result in a need for more personnel instead of additional space: Some more high security inmates would be moved to the newer wing, and more guards would be added to keep track of them.

As it stands, the minimum security areas are monitored from a tower, but guards are not in the dormitory-style areas at all times.

Full-time guards could be added in some wings so that more high security prisoners could be moved to them. But it’s not as simple as just hiring more corrections officers. There would also need to be new guidelines for which inmates could be stationed in the facility.

“We’re in the process of working with TCI and (the County Technical Advisory Service) for setting those parameters for what inmates they feel should be housed down there,” Seals said.

Also considered: a work release program that would help clear the jail during the day and possibly help create a new source of revenue.

“That would also help them to pay for their incarceration,” Seals said.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com