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Bedford County among many facing jail overcrowding

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bedford County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday night to join Tennessee Corrections Institute's County Corrections Partnership Initiative, which will provide consultation and referral as the county struggles to deal with jail overcrowding.

Miller Meadows, a jail inspector with Tennessee Corrections Institute
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
State jail inspector Miller Meadows addressed the commission, telling them that the county jail is significantly overcrowded -- but it isn't alone; Meadows said 57 jails statewide are overcrowded, and so is the state prison system.

Sheriff praised

Meadows said that Sheriff Randall Boyce and the jail staff are doing a good job in the facility they have to work with. But he said there's simply not enough square footage in the current jail to house the inmates held there.

"I don't think you're running an unconstitutionally-harsh jail," said Meadows.

When Meadows visited the jail in August, it had 143 inmates, compared to its certified capacity of 110. He said overcrowding creates problems for both inmates and staff. It also makes it impossible to separate different types of prisoners, keeping minor offenders away from more serious ones.

Count at issue

County officials have said in the past that the state doesn't count felons -- who are technically the state's responsibility, but who are often held in county jails -- when determining whether or not a jail is overcrowded.

Meadows said that's the case only if the governor makes an official declaration that the state prison system is overcrowded, and that hasn't taken place. Meadows said the current management at TCI is determined to go strictly by the standards.

Because Meadows discovered overcrowding during inspections on Aug. 2 and Oct. 1, the sheriff and county mayor Eugene Ray must appear before the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Board of Control on Dec. 5.

The fact that the county voted to join the partnership, and is looking to address the situation, means that the jail will likely be recertified at that time, giving the county until the next inspection cycle to start putting together a plan.

Lawsuit possible

But the state certification doesn't guarantee that inmates won't try to take the county to federal court, as happened in the 1980s, resulting in construction of the current county jail. Meadows said that the Maury County jail is currently facing 27 inmate lawsuits.

"The jail is probably the largest legal liability that the county has," said Meadows.

Meadows said the county has options.

"We're not going to tell you what to do," he said.

Overcrowding can be addressed in different ways, such as increased use of electronic monitoring bracelets for house arrest of non-dangerous offenders. Giles County has had some success with the ankle bracelets, Meadows said.

New jail ahead?

He said that joining the partnership doesn't commit the county to building a new jail, but indicated that the current jail may need to be replaced.

"It's lived its useful life," he said. "I hate to say that, but it's true."

And Meadows said the number of prisoners is only going to increase.

Meadows said that by joining TCI's County Corrections Partnership Initiative, the county would get access to advice and referrals to architects and others who can propose solutions.

The resolution to join the partnership was not on Tuesday's agenda, so the commission had to vote to suspend the rules to consider it. The motion to approve the initiative passed 17-1, with only Joe Tillett opposed.