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Unicoi County officials debate future of jail facilities

The members of the Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee listen to suggestions from TCI Facilities Specialist Bob Bass. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee met on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to discuss the future of the county jails.

Currently, Unicoi County has two facilities – one housing male inmates and one housing female inmates. The two facilities house both local inmates and state inmates. According to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, state inmates bring in $39 daily per inmate; however, the costs for inmates vary due to medical needs, as well as other housing needs. Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) pays Unicoi County $39 daily per state inmate that the county houses.

Last year the county spent roughly $256,000 dollars on medical and prescription costs for the inmates, according to Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice. This year the budget for inmate medical costs is $129,000. So far, the county is on track with the projected budget.

Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Detention Facilities Specialist Bob Bass and County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) Jail Management Consultant Jim Hart were on hand to hear the concerns of the committee last week. The county commission concerns are centered on cutting costs in regards to inmate revenue.

The first plan discussed was to expand the facility located next to the Unicoi County Courthouse at 102 N. Main Ave, Erwin, and move all inmates to the location. This plan would allow the county to close down the property at 1570 Jackson Love Highway, Erwin, which currently houses the female inmates.

“We are looking at trying to house one jail, under one roof,” Sheriff Mike Hensley said.

The county is looking to do the most cost-effective maneuver in regards to the jail.

“The overhead of two facilities is killing us,” Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris said. “It would be better if we had one cost.”

A move to one facility would not be an easy move to make, according to Bass.

“Moving to one facility you will be taking on really big challenges,” Bass said. “You would need to make a host of changes to accommodate that.”

The facility located adjacent to the courthouse in downtown Erwin would need to be expanded to house all the inmates.

“Not only are you looking at adding a separate wing for the female inmates, you are looking at enlarging the kitchen, food and food storage, laundry and the booking areas,” Bass said.

According to Hart, the first step to combining the jails to one location would be to get engineers to approve the expansion at the building at 102 N. Main Ave, Erwin.

“I would look at my options, get costs, and go from there,” Hart said.

Another plan that was explored by the committee was to build a new facility at a new location.

“There is going to come a day we will need to build a brand new facility, and we need to be prepared,” Harris said.

It will take numerous years to build a new facility, according to Hart.

“You are looking at 3 to 5 years to build a new building,” Hart said.

The time frame for a new facility would be longer than that to complete, according to Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley.

“It would be a minimum 5 years, at least,” Mosley said.

To build a new facility, the county would have to send the state inmates out to other facilities and move all county inmates to one facility while the new building is erected. The move would be needed to cut the costs of facilitating two separate buildings.

According to Hart, since there will be no expansion to the building adjacent to the courthouse, this move would put the county at risk of overpopulation. Evely cautioned the move.

“Before we send inmates back we want to be sure we view all of the variables first,” Evely said. 

One of the biggest strains on the current two jail system is non-sentenced inmates, according to Sheriff Mike Hensley. A non-sentenced inmate, is an inmate that may have been on and broke probation and is jailed until they can go back before the court.

Bass and Hart joined the commissioners on a tour of the facility adjacent to the courthouse following the meeting on Feb. 12. Bass offered to work in the future with the county through the County Corrections Partnership Initiative if the county approved. The County Corrections Partnership (CCP) is an initiative developed by TCI to assist in measures to address jail issues and reform. The commission agreed to accept his help going forward.

“The more information we can have the better we are,” Harris said. No future meeting with CCP has been set yet.

Since the county is looking at keeping both facilities up and running, some repairs will be needed to keep both jails up to code. The committee decided during the Feb. 12 meeting to put any moves on hold until more information could be gathered in regards to combining the facilities or looking for land to build a new jail.

“We know we need to make improvements,” Commissioner Matthew Rice said. “We just did not want to make them until we were sure about what we were going to do. We have to be sure we are spending money in the right places.”   

One improvement that the committee is looking at is updating the fencing at the facilities. The committee will meet again next month to discuss improvements to the facilities, including the need for a new fence.