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State inmate housing debate continues

Unicoi County commissioners Loren Thomas, left, Jamie Harris, center, and John Mosley were part of a recent discussion regarding the housing of state inmates in Unicoi County’s jail facilities. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County is taking the next steps available to explore expansion at its jail annex facility.

The Unicoi County Building and Grounds Committee voted unanimously to call for a study of what it would cost to transform the current records room into more housing for inmates, following a motion made by Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and a second by Unicoi County Commissioner and Committee Chairman John Mosley.

“I recommend we refer to the full commission for bids to do a study of what it will cost to transform the records rooms to house more beds,” Harris said.

The study would determine what the costs would be to transform the county’s records room, which is located in the jail annex, into additional housing for inmates.

According to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley a similar study was done in 2016.

“TCI goes by square footage for each inmate; we could possibly fit 20 people in that space,” Hensley said. “It was estimated to be $200,000 three years ago by an engineering firm.”

Harris said he believes housing the state inmates could bring in almost $300,000 annually.

“State inmates could bring in $288,000 roughly a year,” Harris said.

According to Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, state inmates bring in roughly $39.50 daily paid for by the State of Tennessee.

“We have been spinning our wheels for years and we are needing more money to bring in to prevent tax increases in the future and this is one way we can do that,” Thomas said. “We are not trying to make a profit, we are trying to offset the costs of the county.”

As far as the records, Thomas acknowledged that the Unicoi County Records Committee is already in the process of making a move.

“I know they are searching for a location within walking distance to the courthouse,” Thomas said.

During the Unicoi County Records Commission meeting on Sept. 13, the records commission voted unanimously to have Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely reach out to Christian Care Center of Unicoi County to get a price for the suite behind the care center to be a temporary home for the records.

According to Unicoi County Records Commission Chairwoman Debbie Tittle, this would be a temporary fix.

“We would like to have approval to have a representative from Tysinger, Hampton & Partners to seek out a permanent site,” Tittle said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice expressed hesitancy in moving forward with any jail expansion.

“It’s premature if we don’t explore costs per inmate first,” Rice said.

Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Administrative Assistant Craig Masters acknowledged that each inmate is different.

“The best way to examine the cost of each inmate is by looking at our budget and seeing where we are from there,” Masters said. “Each inmate is different and costs different.”

Hensley acknowledged one group is costing the county more than others in the jails.

“Our non-convicted inmates are the ones costing us,” Hensley said. “Another cost is inmates that are coming off of drugs. They come in and get ‘dope sick’ and we have to take care of them. These drugs are a sad business.”

According to Hensley, his department can be selective in what state inmates they bring in.

“We are very selective when bringing in state inmates,” Hensley said.

The only issue that Hensley sees facing the annex is the amount of coverage that is currently needed.

“Our problem isn’t personnel, per se, it’s an issue of having the coverage in posts,” Hensley said. “It looks like I have a lot working daily with three or four correctional officers, but when you’ve got inmates needing to go outside in the rec yard, inmates eating lunch, inmates coming in being processed, we are stretched thin.”

The full county commission must vote on the matter before any action can take place. The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet again on Monday, Jan. 27, at 5 p.m.