County mulls jail crowding research
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
An issue buried for four years rose again Tuesday as the Blount County Agenda Committee took up the issue of jail overcrowding.
On the table is a proposal to appoint a new Blount County Jail Overcrowding Ad Hoc Committee to study conditions at the jail. The last such committee met during 2008 and recommended the construction of a new pod, to be financed through the revenue from housing federal prisoners.
The Sheriff’s Office now finds itself facing even more overcrowding in the jail than when it temporarily lost its Tennessee Corrections Institute certification in August 2008.
On Tuesday, the jail population was 533. This included 347 local inmates, 86 state inmates, 98 federal inmates, and two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates. The jail is only certified for 350.
Commissioner Tonya Burchfield is sponsoring the resolution, which was moved to the full commission meeting on July 19 for consideration.
“I’d like for an ad hoc committee to look at the issues and what is going on and how they can be resolved,” Burchfield said.
Folts votes no
Commissioner Jim Folts voted against establishing the ad hoc committee, saying it wasn’t needed. “The so-called jail overcrowding problem is due primarily to the fact that we keep 100 federal prisoners in the jail,” he said. “We are under no obligations to do so. If you take those 100 out, we don’t have an overcrowding problem.”
The 2008 proposal did not make it out of County Budget Committee as none of the then-members had an appetite to pursue the project in the challenging economic environment of the time.
Commissioner Steve Samples chaired the ad hoc committee and was a member of the Budget Committee in 2008. He said finding solutions to overcrowding at the jail is complicated.
“It’s never a simple answer,” he said. “I don’t want citizens to think that it’s just so simple — that we just say, ‘We don’t want any more federal prisoners.’”
Since 2008, revenues from federal inmates have dropped by about half — to an estimated $1.6 million in the current budget, according information on the county website. The revenues have traditionally been used to offset the operational costs of the jail.
“The decision is: Do we get rid of the federal prisoners and not take them any more?” Samples said. “If that’s the case, we have to replace the money that the federal prisoners are bringing into the general fund.”
Once the County Budget Committee declined to support the proposal to build a new pod, Sheriff James L. Berrong ultimately decided to cut levels of federal inmates to lower jail population levels and regain certification.
Until 2008, the Sheriff’s Office held as many as 180 federal inmates in the jail per day, spokeswoman Marian O’Briant said. “Today’s federal population is 98. ... By law, we cannot turn away a local law enforcement agency who brings an inmate to our facility. We must house them. In addition, the state pays us $37 a day to house their inmates. So, because of our growing number of local inmates, we asked the U.S. Marshals Service to lower the number of federal inmates they bring to us, which in turn is generating less income for the county from that federal source.”
In other business at the July 19 meeting, commissioners will consider appointing an Investment Committee that will decide which bank gets the county’s $35 million in deposits. The committee last met in 2008 when it awarded the contract to Mountain National Bank. It chooses the bank the county does business with through a competitive bidding process.