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Jail full of problems: Inspector

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The state's senior jail inspector, Bob Bass, said he wasn't "the jail police" and repeatedly stressed that his purpose wasn't to tell the county it needed to build a new jail.

"I hope you don't have to build a jail," said Bass. "I'd rather build schools than a jail."

But Bass's presentation Tuesday night to Bedford County Board of Commissioners stressed design flaws and overcrowding at the existing 25-year-old county jail, certainly making it seem as if a new facility is needed at some point. He said the recent transfer of some state inmates out of the facility was "a stopgap measure" rather than a long term solution.

"That's not going to last," said Bass. He also noted that the loss of the state inmates results in the loss of income from the state, and that income helps pay for the jail's fixed costs.

Solutions sought

Bass is a detention facilities specialist with Tennessee Corrections Institute, the division of state government which regulates local jail facilities.

After state inspections in August and October found overcrowding in Bedford County Jail, the county voted to join the County Corrections Partnership, a TCI program which helps local governments work on solutions to their jail problems.

Sheriff Randall Boyce will have to report monthly to TCI; the jail remains certified until at least the next unannounced inspection, and will likely remain certified as long as the county is making "measurable progress" towards a solution, said Bass. Bedford County has appointed a committee to study the problem, and Community Corrections Partnership offers training courses and other resources to assist the committee in its research.

Design flaws

Bass presented slides of existing conditions at the jail. Design flaws which could cause safety, security, or handicap access problems included narrow corridors in the jail, and stairs inside the building, including stairs leading to the jail's sally port which have to be used by virtually any inmate being brought into or out of the facility.

A dining hall added to the facility at one point has wooden ceilings. If inmates were ever unsupervised in that room, they could easily tear through the rotting wood, said Bass.

The jail has at least some ceramic toilets, which are not recommended because they can be broken, and the shards used as weapons. Most jails now use stainless steel fixtures.

Some of the safety flaws Bass pointed out are correctable, he said. For example, a missing panel on a gas oven can be replaced, either with a part from the manufacturer or a fabricated replacement.

Staff praised

He praised Boyce and the jail staff for making the best of a bad situation.

"Your jail is relatively clean and well-organized," he said, "and that's hard to do."

Bass said that overcrowding -- and, in fact, any jail occupancy higher than 90 percent of capacity -- makes it difficult to classify and separate inmates, keeping, for example, an otherwise law-abiding DUI offender away from a violent career criminal.

Bass also noted problems at Bedford County Workhouse, as well as courthouse security issues. There's a lack of separation of inmates at the courthouse, too; all of the male inmates are kept in one room, and the female inmates have to be kept in the corridor.

Possible danger

Bass showed a slide of inmates being loaded into a jail van outside the courthouse, in the shadow of the veterans memorial.

"How dangerous is that?" he asked. He said someone in a passing car could cause security problems.

"Somebody's life could get lost," he said.

He noted that those transportation and security concerns are why some communities build justice centers which combine jail and courtroom facilities under one roof.

Major question

"Do we build a jail," he asked, "or do we build a criminal justice center?"

Downtown merchants are strongly opposed to any proposal which would remove the judicial system from Bedford County Courthouse, saying it would be devastating to the downtown economy.

Prior to Bass's presentation, county commissioner J.D. "Bo" Wilson said that there is $375,000 in a courthouse security account and that the county hopes to have a budget soon for ways to improve security at the courthouse.

'Selective enforcement'

Bass also said overcrowding leads to "selective law enforcement." He noted that Bedford County has 2,950 outstanding warrants, 125 prisoners on parole and 155 on probation. If a substantial number of those needed to be incarcerated, the county would be in a severe problem.

Programs like drug court or house arrest using electronic monitoring bracelets could possibly relieve some overcrowding.

Bass said that the local committee needs to carefully study the problem, with training from Community Corrections Partnership, and work towards solutions.

The county's existing jail was built in the mid-1980s. The county was under a federal court order based on a lawsuit on behalf of inmates.

Past and future

Commissioners couldn't agree on a new location for the jail, and so the jail was built on the existing site, next to the historic 19th-century rock jail which was still being used at that time. The cramped location presumably contributed to some of the design flaws cited by Bass.

Bass said Tuesday night that overcrowding does not automatically equate to the kind of unconstitutional conditions that would result in another federal lawsuit. The county's normal jail inspector, Miller Meadows, told commissioners a month ago that while the jail is overcrowded by TCI standards, he does not believe conditions are unconstitutionally-harsh.

Bass stressed a careful, deliberate study of conditions and how to address them, not the kind of hasty response that might be required if the county were under a federal court order as happened in the 1980s.

Bass's presentation took place after the adjournment of the commission's regular monthly meeting on Tuesday.