Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) has moved 35 state inmates out of Bedford County jail to assist with local overcrowding, according to a letter from the department to State Rep. Pat Marsh.
County Commissioner Joe Tillett, who received the letter from Marsh, furnished a copy to the Times-Gazette.
County officials are meeting with the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) this week to discuss overcrowding at the jail.
TCI and TDOC are two completely separate entities within state government. TDOC operates the state's prison system and manages the incarceration of felons (criminals with sentences of a year or more). Although felons are the state's responsibility, many local county jails house some state felons with short sentences or because the state hasn't had room to take them off the county's hands.
TCI, on the other hand, is the arm of state government which inspects and certifies local jails. Bedford County is currently working with TCI to develop a plan of action to address overcrowding in the local jail.
State jail inspector Miller Meadows told county commissioners last month that the jail had "lived its useful life," and while TCI won't tell the county exactly how to resolve its overcrowding situation Meadows indicated that a new jail may be needed.
The letter to Marsh from Jim Thrasher, executive assistant to the commissioner of TDOC, says that the state has scheduled intake of felons from all 95 counties to address overcrowding concerns.
"Our procedure, which is well known to the sheriff and jail administrators, is to telephone or e-mail our Classification Division and notify us of the number of offenders that are ready to be transferred," wrote Thrasher.
"We place that county's name and number of offenders on a list in chronological order for transfer as soon as possible. When there is a place available at one of our reception centers, we telephone the counties and let them know the number of offenders we can schedule to be accepted, and the facility that will accept them on a date that we provide."
Thrasher's letter, dated Nov. 28, said that 20 male offenders had been accepted by TDOC that day and another 15 were to be transferred the following day.
"We will continue to work with the jail as beds become available to ease the overcrowded condition," wrote Thrasher.
The state will have a new 1,540-bed prison opening in January in Bledsoe County, which should help somewhat with the state's capacity.
The county has received conflicting information about whether or not the number of state inmates plays a part in certification.
County officials have long been told that TCI does not count the number of state inmates, only the number of local misdemeanor inmates, when determining whether a county jail is overcrowded.
Meadows, who works for TCI, told commissioners last month that is only true in circumstances in which the governor has declared the state prison system to be overcrowded, a situation that doesn't apply at the moment.
But Thrasher's letter specifically goes back to the county's original understanding.
"Please be advised that pursuant to TCI policy, state inmates do not count in determining if a county facility is overcrowded for certification purposes," wrote Thrasher. Thrasher works for TDOC, not TCI.
The county's current jail, built in the 1980s, was the result of a federal class action lawsuit, on behalf of inmates, in which the court found conditions at the county's old rock jail to be unconstitutional.
A federal court would not differentiate between state felons or local misdemeanants if a new lawsuit were to be filed. Meadows, however, told commissioners last month that he doesn't believe the current conditions at the jail are unconstitutionally-harsh.
The fact that the county has signed an agreement to join TCI's community partnership initiative and is working to address its overcrowding situation means that the county is safe from being decertified at least until the next inspection cycle.