Representatives from the state outlined the needs and issues at Warren County Jail during Monday night’s Warren County Commission meeting.
“I hope I can get an escort to the edge of town,” said Bob Bass, Tennessee Corrections Institute program coordinator. “I come with bad news. Your jail is in trouble. I’m sure most of you are aware of that.”
He added, “If a jail can’t meet the standards because of overcrowding, it is allowed to file a plan of action with TCI. Presently, your plan of action says you are going to expand your jail and it was voted on earlier this year. Now, here we are. A bid came back. We need more money. Right? Procrastination comes with a price. If you kick the can down the road a little further, it will be a bit bigger price.”
Bass said our jail issues are longstanding.
“Warren County was put on notice in 2013 that something needed to be done. That was five years ago. I’m not bringing you the first news of this. I presented my program on Dec. 12, 2014. It was set up by resolution Feb. 26, 2015. I conducted a snapshot on March 17, 2015 which means I went in and took pictures of the jail, looked at the jail population. I did a mini-study of who’s in that jail, what their charges were, why they were sitting in that jail. I presented it May 19, 2015.”
The current jail is certified for 251 beds. Bass said the jail had 331 inmates Monday.
“I’m not in the hug-a-thug business, never have been,” said Bass. “I’m a former jail administrator with 26 years in this business and 20 years with TCI. But, let’s understand this, jails are not full of bad people. They are full of people who’ve made bad decisions.”
Jails should offer separate classifications: minimum, medium, and maximum security, and subcategories such as non-sentenced and sentenced individuals. Bass said overcrowding prevents separation and when violent and nonviolent offenders are mixed, nonviolent offenders can get injured and that will lead to lawsuits.
“You can overcrowd a jail all you want,” said Bass. “It’s not unconstitutional. It’s not against the law. It’s what happens in that jail when you overcrowd it that can violate someone’s constitutional rights. If you put a jaywalker in a cell with an ax murderer, that’s probably not a good idea.”
Inmates are locked down at the jail, on average, 22 hours a day. Bass said inactivity leads to frustration and frustration leads to destruction.
“You have one maintenance man. That’s a busy maintenance man who’s trying to take care of a jail that’s overcrowded where inmates have 24 hours to sit back there and figure out how they are going to mess things up,” said Bass.
Alternative sentencing, specifically probation, might not be the solution to jail overcrowding, says Bass.
“Your total correctional population was 1,368 in Warren County in 2015. That means the ones sitting in jail and the ones out on probation. That’s what we’d rather do, right? Let’s find alternatives. Let’s use ankle monitors. Let’s move them out of the jail. If they bobbed or weaved and you have to bring them back to jail, that’s a big jail for 1,368 folks.”
Bass says recidivism is at 89 percent and programs are needed to reduce that.
“Eighty-nine percent of the folks in there are coming back. Why? If we don’t try to look for the cure with programs to help those folks, we aren’t going to change anything. They are going to keep doing that. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You are going to have the whole family down there.”
While inmates are returning, correction officers are leaving. Bass said the employee turnover rate at the jail in 2015 was 22 percent.
“Do you know who the other inmates are? Your officers. Twenty-two percent turnover. We aren’t paying anything or we have no benefit package. Something is wrong. When I see that large a turnover, I know something is wrong.”
An assessment conducted in 2016 estimated the jail needs a staff of 62 but only had 38.
Bass recommended years ago the jail relocate files that are being held in storage, which has not been done.
“You’ve got a room down there that is as big as this one,” said Bass, referring to the courtroom at the Warren County Administrative Offices on Locust Street. “I think you could use it for housing. I really do. It’s a storage place right now just for old files. Move those into an outbuilding and turn that area into housing.”
Ball says the jail recertification inspection will be conducted after Jan. 1. If it fails, the county will be given a deadline to fix the problems.
“What happens if we don’t get recertified?” asked Commissioner Steven Helton, the new County Corrections Partnership Committee chairman.
Bass said the jail’s insurance premiums will soar, Tennessee Corrections Institute will no longer offer the jail free officer training programs, and lawsuits will be filed.
Commissioner Carl D. Bouldin, also a member of the jail committee, says commissioners can suggest changes, but they cannot force the sheriff to act upon those suggestions.
“A lot of things that you’ve talked about are administrative problems,” said Bouldin. “We have no control over an elected official for certain things. When you have 85 percent of your population that is misdemeanors, you can be working them. You could have work programs. That got shot down. We have a brand new sheriff. I talked to him today and I think he’s willing to put programs into motion. We’ve got to do that. The room that was mentioned, we measured it off and told how many people we could put in it. Nothing was done.”
Bouldin says the jail has 322 prisoners – not 331 as stated by Bass – and adds 66 are state inmates that could be transported to a state facility.
“The jail’s population today is 322. Of those, 66 are state inmates. Without those, we’re down to 256 inmates. That’s five over our population,” said Bouldin. “We can release those 66 inmates, but we will lose the $39 a day we’re getting, but how many dollars a day is it costing us to keep them?”
Estimates given by the jail administration during prior committee meetings place the cost of housing an inmate at approximately $50 per day.
Bass says state inmates are removed when requested by jail administration. Bass said the prior administration did not ask for them to be sent, possibly due to money.
Bass said from July 16, 2016 to June 30, 2017, the county got $736,384 to put into its general fund for housing state inmates. From July 17, 2017 to June 18, 2018, the county received $816,844.
“If you go back five years, you are going to find you are getting between $750,000 to $800,000 a year that you are taking from the state of Tennessee,” said Bass.
In attendance was Sheriff Tommy Myers, who stated he would be willing to work with county commissioners and the county executive on any changes to improve jail conditions.
County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) Jail Management consultant Jim Hart also provided a presentation on his study of the jail that he made to the county on Aug. 12, 2016. It pointed to the same issues found by Bass during his inspections of the jail.
The presentation lasted more than an hour.