ERWIN — Last week, a state jail inspector paid a visit to Unicoi County.
His inspection of the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin found that the facility is in compliance. The Jail Annex facility also passed inspection.
However, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said the inspector advised the county must soon look at replacing its downtown jail.
“In the next few years, we’re going to be looking at the expense of building a new jail,” Hensley said.
Hensley said this is due to the jail simply “outliving its expectancy.” Hensley said he was told by the jail inspector that jails have an operational expectancy of approximately 20 years. The Unicoi County Jail was constructed in the mid-1970s.
The sheriff said he must form a committee, made up of county commissioners and representatives from the County Technical Advisory Service and the Tennessee Corrections Institute, before next year’s inspection. Hensley said this committee will be responsible for providing ideas and suggestions. The inspector has also offered to provide the Unicoi County Commission with specifications on the new facility, Hensley said.
“This is nothing that’s going to be done next year or possibly for the next two years,” Hensley said of the new jail’s construction. “It’s somewhere down the road, but we do have to have this committee formed by next year.”
Hensley said Unicoi County is held to the same mandates as larger counties with stronger tax bases. He said he understands that funding the construction of a new jail may be difficult due to costs the county faces and the fact more than half of Unicoi County is federally owned.
“I’m very familiar with the crisis this county is in as far as financials,” Hensley said. “We’re still paying on the new high school. We’ve built a new middle school, a bus garage, and we’ve got things that we’re having to pay for. Our tax base is very small here. I’m very familiar, but this is not my call. This is their call. And I would hope the citizens understand it’s not me saying ‘I need a new jail.’ ”
But Hensley said he intends to alleviate as much of the financial burden as possible by seeking funding through grants and working with organizations, such as the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association.
“There’s no doubt it’s coming to our county, and I’m going to try to use every resource I can to help offset the cost of that,” he said.
Some cost-savings options are already present, Hensley said. He said there is space for expansion at the Jail Annex property.
“Right now, there’s no doubt that down the road, and I’m not putting a time frame on it because I can’t right now, but I know down the road in the next few years we’re going to be looking at building a new jail or maybe possibly building another facility out here at the annex. There’s a lot of avenues they’ll just have to look at and what they’ll allow us to do.”