Overcrowding conditions worsening in Blount County Jail
By J.J. Kindred | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Anyone who is imprisoned knows that conditions will not be like a country club or Buckingham Palace.
But some residents feel their loved ones who have been incarcerated in the Blount County Detention Facility recently should be able to serve their time in a better atmosphere.
The husband of Maryville resident Danielle Hubbard spent some brief time in the facility after being charged with contempt of court. He had to share a small cell with three other inmates and was relegated to sleeping on the floor.
“He had to sleep on the floor with nothing to cover up with,” Hubbard said. “It’s not sanitary. He said it was horrible. I understand there’s people that need to be there, but there are people on contempt (of court charges) that came in. It’s so bad that people need to let (officials) know or find them a better facility.”
Many residents like Hubbard who have had loved ones, friends or acquaintances serve time in the facility have been flooding the Sheriff’s Office with calls and messages, expressing their concerns about the conditions of the jail, and overcrowding in particular.
Some inmates have been sleeping on mats on concrete floors if there are no beds available, and some, like Hubbard described, have slept on the floor with no mat, pillow or blanket.
The jail, which opened in 1999, was built to house 350 inmates, but as of Thursday has about 515. Officials described the situation as “10 pounds of flour in a five-pound bag.”
As of Thursday, out of those 515 inmates, officials said about 190 of them are accused of felonies and are waiting to go to trial.
There were 76 accused of misdemeanor offenses and are still waiting to go to court, 45 sentenced felons who have been court-ordered to serve less than two years in the facility, and 50 serving time on misdemeanor offenses ranging from 48 hours to nearly a year.
There are also 90 federal inmates and 86 from the Tennessee Department of Corrections who are still waiting for beds.
‘Train off track’
Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said during an interview with The Daily Times that the jail started experiencing jail overcrowding problems during the 1990s.
“We were sued by a number of inmates, but a federal judge came in to control this facility and we relieved that liability,” Berrong said. “They did a needs assessment back in 1994, based on what the county would need in terms of population. When we first got here, we had a lot of space and we rented some out to the U.S. Marshals Service.”
Berrong said the jail has had decent revenue in the last 10 years, but he and other officials approached the Blount County Commission 3½ years ago, and let them know that “the train was coming off the track.”
“We were experiencing overcrowding and had to do something,” Berrong said. “We took out some of the marshals’ prisoners, and that cost us $3,000-$4,000 a year. During that time, it was a low number and we had enough revenue, but since then it’s gotten way out of hand.”
‘Cruel and inhumane’
Knoxville resident Joann D’Onofrio, whose son spent a brief time in the facility, said he told her there were inmates sleeping in the hallway, and several fights broke out.
“It’s cruel and inhumane treatment as far as I’m concerned,” D’Onofrio said. “(The inmates) are supposed to get raises (more privileges) twice a week. They (officers) don’t care about them — they hung up on me at the jail.”
D’Onofrio and Hubbard were among many who complained that they were told inmates have suffered from skin conditions such as scabies, and even developed hepatitis from being confined to multiple inmates in a small cell. “My son was there for almost two months, and they never gave him medicine for his skin,” D’Onofrio said. “He knew to put in for the doctor to provide itch medicine, but they don’t care. (My son) needed to be in jail, but don’t treat them like dogs. It’s inhumane.”
“In every single cell, all of them were coughing,” Hubbard said. “The cells are small, and with four people in there when you (go to the bathroom), it splashes all over everybody. I know it’s not the Holiday Inn, but that’s not adequate care.”
Berrong said while he admits the jail has many issues, it will be a slow process in order to make improvements.
‘Nothing to hide’
“We have nothing to hide,” Berrong said. “We send the mayor the jail’s population periodically and what we’re averaging. I don’t have the purse strings — all I can do is run the physical plant assigned to me in this 13-year-old facility.
“We are experiencing some complaints, and some of them are valid. Whenever you have that many people in this confined space, you’re going to have issues. We are staffed for 350 inmates, so we have concerns internally.
“We do have cots,” Berrong continued. “I can’t say that no one has ever slept on the floor with just a blanket, but we just got some new cots in.”
“Whenever you run a facility like this, you’re going to have some health problems,” added Chief Deputy Ron Dunn. “I haven’t heard of that recently, but it’s common to have those things.”
“Our philosophy is we can only do things we can control,” Berrong said. “They’re used to having television, newspapers, sodas and cigarettes ... that creates some issues among people that live here. This is jail. The word in the corrections community is you don’t want to go to Blount County.”
Tour of facility
Lt. Keith Gregory, one of the facility’s corrections officers, gave a tour to The Daily Times and showed first-hand inmate living conditions, some of which would not make most people comfortable.
“There are few complaints as far as being overcrowded,” Gregory said. “They (inmates) all pretty much get along. These guys back here in this pod (pointing), they’re not going to complain. They have more room to roam and get on the phone any time they want, but they have to have money on their account to use it.”
Gregory said that the inmates are classified from being trustworthy enough to work inside the prison to being placed in solitary confinement, where they sit in their cells 23 hours a day and are allowed one hour of recreation time in a confined area.
“Our circuit court is so backed up that when you hear a case or two a week, it’s hard to make that number (of inmates) go back down,” Gregory said. “These guys that can’t afford to make bond are having to sit back here for a long time. That number keeps growing.
“Prisons in other counties are in the same shape we’re in,” Gregory continued. “They don’t have the room, either. It’s easier for them to pay to house them here and try to stack them up. We get 10 prison beds every two months. It seems like for every 10 we send, 10 get sentenced and they’re waiting for a prison bed. You can ask any of these guys and they would rather do time in another county, because there are things that can make the time go by a lot quicker.”