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County jail among first to get new state accreditation

SEVIERVILLE — When the state started issuing a new type of accreditation for jails that looks to improve rehabilitation efforts for inmates and sets other new standards, Sevier County was ready to go.

The Sevier County Jail, including the annex, was among the first facilities in the state to get the new Tier 1 accreditation for new voluntary standards by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.

Sherif Michael Hodges attributed that quick success to changes they were already making at the sheriff’s office.

“We were able to jump in because of some things we’ve done and some things we have changed, and we were fortunate enough to be accredited,” he said.

The accreditations are a separate set of criteria from the yearly inspections the TCI completes at jails across the state. In fact, one of the standards for the new accreditation is two continuous years of certification under that inspection.

The new accreditation requires more training for corrections officers — to qualify, all corrections officers must get 40 hours of training upon hiring.

“The idea behind that is to professionalize that career field, that career path, to give them a little bit more legitimacy,” Hodges said.

That can seem like a steep demand for a job that’s been notorious for a high turnover rate in Sevier County and across the state.

But improved pay and benefits for corrections officers was a point of emphasis in the pay study the Sevier County Commission approved in 2020.

Commissioners approved pay hikes across the board, but the sheriff’s office got one of the biggest jumps, and that included the corrections officers.

That forward thinking has helped pave the way for them to ask for more from their corrections officers.

“It’s like it says in the Bible, as much is given much is required,” Hodges said.

The new training includes an emphasis on verbal de-escalation in dealing with inmates, as well as use of force training and training in mental health issues.

Hodges said they’ve made it a goal to be more aware of those issues not only in the jai but at the sheriff’s office and the city police departments in Sevier County.

“It’s an acknowledgment that many of the people coming into the jail have mental health issues,” he said.

Their hope is to have programs in place that offer inmates help with those issues while they’re being held and when they leave.

That applies to all inmates who are interested in getting ready for life outside the jail.

One of the requirements for accreditation was to have an evidence-based program that teaches life skills or behavioral health.

Sevier County used a grant to add a staff position that does that.

“That individual is working to identify the inmates who qualify based on behavior and the length of their sentence, to put them in programs that will help them such as life skill programs and GED programs,” he said.

“It will give them some tools under their belts when they leave.”

They’re also working with local businesses to find jobs for inmates who complete the programs.

The hope is to give inmates another chance to join the workforce and not to fall into the patterns of behavior that got them into the jail in the first place.

Sevier County already has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the state, he said, and their goal is to get that number even lower.

And the program also will help the county bottom line, he added.

Jails that receive the accreditation get additional funding from the state for housing state inmates, which can include people serving short sentences.

We want to be good stewards for our profession, but if there’s a way to generate revenue that doesn’t come from our taxpayers, that’s always a plus we’re excited about,” Hodges said.

The New Center Lady Rockets, who won the 2023 TMSAA Class AA State Championship, are recognized at the Sevier County High School Bearettes’ district tournament game on Saturday.

Lady Rockets celebrated

Avid Smokies hiker to speak at Rose Glen Festival
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SEVIERVILLE — Nancy East shares her experiences in search and rescue and as an avid hiker to help prepare those heading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to overcome any circumstances they may face on the trail.

East is a featured speaker at this year’s Rose Glen Literary Festival where she will discuss her book, “Chasing the Smokies Moon: An audacious 948-mile hike—fueled by love, loss, laughter, and lunacy.”

The Rose Glen Literary Festival returns Saturday from 9 a.m.-3 the Sevierville Convention Center, 202 Gists Creek Road. Most of the event, including East’s program, is free. Tickets are required for the festival luncheon.

East retired from a 23-year career as a small animal veterinarian to pursue her interest in outdoor education and writing. Her book was inspired by the search for a missing mother in the Smokies during her work with Haywood County’s Search and Rescue Team.

“It was inspired by my involvement with Search and Rescue. I live in Haywood County, North Carolina, and we help the park quite a bit with extended search and rescue efforts they have, or if it’s closer for us to respond to,” East said. “The book itself was inspired by a search up at Clingman’s Dome in 2018 for a missing mom, and it ended in a fatality. It just really prompted me and inspired me to do more outreach and education to hikers who simply just don’t know what they don’t know, and that led to me chasing the speed record for hiking all the trails in the park. It was all tethered to a fundraiser I started with Friends of the Smokies to raise money for the park to do more education and outreach to visitors.”

East will tell stories of search and rescue incidents that have happened in the park and relate those to what people can do to be better prepared for ventures into the park’s many trails.

“I find that people really absorb best when they hear a story about an incident that may have happened to someone else, and they put themselves in that situation, and they think, ‘wow, I’ve done something similar, I just got lucky,’ or whatever the case is,” East said.

East will answer questions during her presentation about the book, search and rescue efforts and the speed record she set, hiking 948 miles in 29 days, 10 hours and 12 minutes.

East speaks at engagements around the region and said she often hears from people who haven’t thought through what they would do in an emergency if they were lost or injured in the Smokies.

“It’s just so important, because all it takes is once to really understand why it is a valuable thing to know what to do, and do things like build a fire, make a makeshift shelter or protect yourself from the elements to be able to endure whatever the conditions may throw at you, that you weren’t even expecting to have to endure,” she said. “Whether you’re brand new at hiking or have been doing it for decades, I feel like people walk away from these talks knowing something that perhaps they just didn’t think as hard about before they came into that room.”

East lives in Lake Junaluska with her husband, three children, and their rescue dog.

Rolling Thunder challenges chili chefs to cookoff
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SEVIERVILLE — An upcoming fundraiser lets chili chefs show off their talents all in the name of helping area veterans.

The local chapter of Rolling Thunder is hosting Chili Chili Bang Bang, a cook-off at the American Legion Post 104, with proceeds to benefit veterans. The event is from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25.

“Anybody can sign up and compete. We’ll see who makes the best,” said Vice President Tim Cahill of Rolling Thunder Chapter TN3.

Cahill said he’s challenged local law enforcement and other first responders to compete against each other for bragging rights.

Entering the contest is free, but attendees who want to participate in the taste-test judging will pay $10 to sample every chili and vote for their favorite. Cahill said there will be chili dogs and other items for sale as well.

“Proceeds will go to support our mission to support veterans and publicize POW/MIA issues,” Cahill said.

Chili cooks can call 865-364-2998 to register and can register day of the event. Cooks are asked to be at the American Legion Post 104 by 11 a.m. March 25 to register their chili and set up. Cooks should have a crock pot to keep the chili warm and serving utensils.

“We are asking them to make at least a gallon of chili so people can come sample it,” Cahill said.

The winner of the event will earn $100 and bragging rights.

Rolling Thunder is known for its motorcycle rides to honor veterans, but the organization is much more than that.

Cahill said he and his wife Suzie have been part of many veterans organizations, including actively with the American Legion. Bike riders, it was a natural fit to also become involved with Rolling Thunder, who combine a shared hobby of riding with their passion for helping those who served.

“If there is a veteran who needs help we try to help them. We want to help the veterans and bring awareness to veterans issues,” Cahill said.

They try to bring awareness and address issues including veteran homelessness and suicide, as well as those still missing in action.

“They are still finding missing in action from WWII, Korea and Vietnam,” Cahill said. “It is important to us for people to remember there are people still missing and families who never had closure because a loved one never came home.”