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County shows off newly completed jail workhouse

After a year and a half of construction, the $3 million jail annex workhouse facility on Jackson-Love Highway is complete and set to begin operations the first week of June, jail administrator George Berry said Friday, May 27.
The facility was opened to the public Friday for tours after a short ceremony, led by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch, commemorating its opening. Visitors included residents, sheriff’s deputies and county officials.
The new low-security workhouse will house 30 regular inmates serving work-release sentences, as well as up to 10 “weekenders” – inmates serving shorter sentences handed down in court for lesser offenses – at any given time.
The workhouse includes a spacious dormitory area, which contains bunk beds and eating tables, as well as open showers and restrooms.
Just outside the dormitory area are two individual holding cells, which are required by the state in facilities of any security level. Deputy Jeff Hawkins said if inmates have to be put in those cells, they will only remain there until a deputy arrives to transport them back to the main jail facility downtown.
Down the hall from the dormitory, two large screens rest atop a counter. From this location, a deputy will monitor security camera feeds at all times. One other deputy will be free to move around the facility. Each shift will require only two deputies to operate the facility.
The workhouse also features a multi-purpose classroom where inmates will be able to take courses toward earning their GED if needed. In addition, the state probation and parole office offers “Thinking for a Change,” a program designed to keep inmates from becoming re-offenders once released.
There is also a full kitchen and laundry facilities at the workhouse. Hawkins said two inmates will remain at the facility while the others leave to work during the day. Those two will be responsible for completing the day’s laundry, cooking meals, and performing routine maintenance as needed.
The facility also has a fenced-in grass area to be used for exercise purposes, as well as a family visitation area near the entrance. Inmates may also use phones in the dormitory at certain times of day for collect calls.
Mayor Lynch said standing in the completed workhouse was “a big relief” to his office, which has handled the accounting and bookkeeping on the project since its inception.
Lynch commended his entire staff, particularly Phyllis Bennett, for their work in getting purchase orders ready when needed and other tasks related to managing the paperwork for the project.
Lynch also said the completed facility is a testament to the idea of helping inmates better themselves and learn from their mistakes.
“We would like for inmates to come in through the jail and leave more prepared for life,” he said. “This jail is a new beginning for the correctional program here in Unicoi County.”
Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris was also on hand after several months of absence during recovery from injuries he sustained in a fall last year. He said he wanted taxpayers to be proud of the facility that has been built because it would serve as a place of rehabilitation.
“A jail ought to be a place where people come, change, and don’t come back,” Harris said. “I don’t want to be the sheriff if it gets to the point where you can’t help somebody.”
Mayor Lynch added that the county will have to pay $338,000 per year for the next 12 years to cover the costs financed for the new facility, plus other renovations to the main jail in downtown Erwin.
He said a litigation fee added to all cases which come through the court system in the county will generate nearly $200,000 of that expense annually, leaving tax payers with a minimal burden of about 3 cents on the property tax rate.