Johnson City Press Thursday, October 2, 2014

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State official says Unicoi County's jail facilities not near expiration date

May 30th, 2014 9:15 am by Brad Hicks

State official says Unicoi County's jail facilities not near expiration date

ERWIN — In April, Tennessee Corrections Institute Detention Facilities Specialist Bob Bass visited Unicoi County’s jail facilities to compile a “snapshot” look at the jails. On Thursday, Bass returned to Erwin to share what he had gleaned.

The recently formed county Jail Committee met Thursday to hear from Bass and other TCI officials as they shared information and recommendations regarding the jail in downtown Erwin and the jail annex.

At the beginning of the meeting, Bass praised the county for its proactive approach in forming the committee. County officials previously agreed to voluntarily participate in the TCI’s Community Correction Plan program, a compliance-type program that assists counties in making sure their jail facilities are up to par, and committee officers were elected in February.

“Your jail is not in crisis management,” Bass said. “Your jail is not in trouble.”

While Bass praised county officials and the staffs at the jail facilities for maintaining clean facilities, he discussed an issue he noticed during his April 23 visit.

Bass said his snapshot was compiled by not only touring the facilities, but also by collecting jail data and records. He said this data collection proved to be an issue, as Unicoi County lacks an up-to-date jail-management system. Bass said rather than being quickly pulling up data on a computer, he had to seek out “hard copy” reports.

“That’s very time-consuming and very difficult,” he said.

The jail is a 62-bed certified facility. During a September jail inspection, inspectors noted that 50 inmates were housed in the facility. Bass said there were 61 housed there on the day of his visit.

Bass said the jail’s sally port entrance area is a cause for some concern, although he said jail staff manages the entrance well. Bass also said the downtown jail’s control center is “crowded,” adding that the area is a confined space. He also noted acts of vandalism committed by inmates in the jail, including graffiti and stopping up vents. The proximity of the jail’s recreation yard to public access is also a concern, Bass said.

The jail annex, an all-female facility, is a 38-certified-bed jail. Bass said 35 inmates were housed there on the day of his visit. The one challenge Bass noted at this facility was its need for holding cells designated for isolation. However, he said there is room to expand the jail.

“This jail is clean,” he said. “This jail is well-organized with the space that you have.”

Bass said he was impressed with the jails overall, but he said the downtown jail was constructed in 1975 and, although impossible to predict, this could lead to issues in the future. He said one year of operation at a jail facility is the equivalent of three-and-a-half years in another facility. He said issues within both facilities included the jail management system, parameters for inmate classification based on facility design and available bed space and effective inmate disciplinary procedures. He also said the county can work to extend the life of its jail facilities.

“Let’s make this jail work for a lot of years to come,” he said.

Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson, who is chairman of the jail committee, said the ability to prolong the downtown jail’s life by addressing some issues is good news to county officials and taxpayers.

“There’s not an expiration date on a building, but the way I understand things is that we don’t have to go build a new jail tomorrow,” Tilson said. “Sometime in the future, it would be prudent to plan, that but that is in the future. If we maintain what we have, we have a good preventive maintenance program, we can prolong the life of the facilities that we currently are using.”

Members of the commitment will look into the issues discussed by Bass and bring information back to the committee at its next meeting. The jail committee is tentatively scheduled to next meet July 22.

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