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Repairs completed, inmates return to downtown Erwin facility

By Brad Hicks

The necessary plumbing repairs are now complete and Unicoi County’s male inmates are once again within the confines of the Unicoi County Jail.

More than five dozen male inmates had to be moved out of the jail due to the Sept. 16 discovery of a leak in a jail sewer line. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said the issue was caused by the pipe being blocked. A contractor called in to unclog the pipe discovered that the black iron pipe – the same pipe installed when the jail was constructed more than 40 years ago – was deteriorating.

“This was the main line under the jail, and all the facilities in the jail – the bathrooms, the showers, even the kitchen – were hooked onto that,” Hensley said, “so, therefore, in order to repair that, we had no choice except to transfer the inmates out so they could get in to repair it.”

The sewer line backup led to water finding its way into the first level of the jail, leading to flooding and damage in that area of the facility. Hensley said water also found its way into the jail’s heating and air ducts, resulting in further issues.

The facility’s inmates were transferred to jails in surrounding counties. Local inmates were taken to jails in Carter, Greene and Washington counties, while some state inmates were transferred to the state penitentiary in Bledsoe County.

After the plumbing issues were discovered, several contractors were brought in to begin cleanup and repair work. Hensley said the main sewer line was repaired and metal drain pipes were replaced with PVC piping.

Officials said a buildup of grease led to the clog that in turn led to the bursting of the jail’s main sewer line.

“It was a contributing factor, I would say,” Hensley said.

To keep grease out of the piping and to prevent it from causing future issues, a grease trap was installed in the jail’s kitchen. Hensley said there had never been a grease trap in place prior to the recent plumbing problems.

Hensley said officials began moving Unicoi County’s inmates back to the local jail on Oct. 6 and completed the transfer of all the inmates early last week.

There is not yet a cost estimate for the repairs, but the county’s insurance should cover water damage, Hensley said. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch previously said several companies, including Allied Piping, Servpro and Environmental Drain & Plumbing were involved in the cleanup and repair, and officials are not yet sure how much the county will have to pay toward the work.

“We still haven’t got all the bills in yet on everything, so we can’t really tell what the cost is yet,” Lynch said.

At its Sept. 26 meeting, the Unicoi County Commission approved a measure to allow the county to cover its costs should they exceed the legal bid threshold. The county is typically required to put any project or purchase exceeding $10,000 out for bid but, as Lynch explained during the meeting, there was no time to bid the repair project and the county’s internal control policies allow him to exceed this threshold in the event of emergencies.

With the repair work now done and the inmates once again in Unicoi County, Hensley expressed his appreciation for his fellow sheriffs who came to Unicoi County’s aid in its time of need.

“I just want to say I really appreciate the surrounding sheriffs working with me, Sheriff Ed Graybeal in Washington County, of course, Sheriff (Dexter) Lunceford of Carter County, and Sheriff (Pat) Hankins of Greene County,” Hensley said. “All three of these sheriffs have really helped me about housing the inmates. …They’ve been an asset to us.”