New Unicoi Co. jail? Not so fast, say commissioners

Brad Hicks • Jan 24, 2013 at 11:56 AM

ERWIN — Late last year, a state jail inspector advised Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley that the county should look to replace its jail in downtown Erwin in the coming years.

Now, county commissioners want a little clarification on this advice, as some officials feel it contradicts a recommendation previously given by another jail inspector who, according to Hensley, advised that an expansion of the jail, completed a little more than a decade ago, would prevent officials from looking to have to construct a new jail for around 20 years.

In a work session to be held before Monday’s regular meeting of the County Commission, commissioners will hear from the inspector who gave the most recent recommendation and likely ask questions about it.

“My problem is we’re looking at a big sum of money, and a lot is going to have to happen in the next five years for us to be able to build a new jail, so we want clarification,” commission Chairman Mickey Hatcher said.

Following a November inspection of the Unicoi County Jail, the inspector told Hensley the jail, while found to be in compliance with state standards, had “outlived its expectancy,” Hensley said previously. Hensley said he was told jails typically have an operational expectancy of approximately 20 years. The jail was constructed in the mid-1970s.

Hensley also said the inspector recommended the county begin looking to replace the facility.

“He did not specify any time down the road, five years, eight years, he did not specify, but he is willing to come and explain some things to the County Commission,” Hensley said Wednesday.

While the inspector did not specify a time, Hensley said he did advise him to form a committee, which will be made up of county commissioners and representatives from the County Technical Advisory Service and the Tennessee Corrections Institute, before this year’s inspection. This committee will be tasked with providing suggestions and ideas to resolve the jail issue.

Hatcher said another item the commissioners want clarification on is the person or agency at the state level responsible for “setting the rules” regarding county jails. Hensley said one question he expects to be posed is whether the inspector’s latest recommendation supersedes the recommendations previously given by another inspector.

“That is something the jail inspector will probably be asked during the meeting,” Hensley said.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he expects the informational meeting to focus on the set up of the committee.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a jail in the near future, but it will put us in a position to where we’ll be ready and not have our back against the wall if it comes to the point where we have to have a jail,” Lynch said. “ ... You make better decisions when you’re proactive than reactive.”

The work session will begin at 4 p.m. Monday at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

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