published Monday, April 25th, 2011

State inspector pushes Rhea to build new jail

By Tom Davis

DAYTON, Tenn. — Rhea County’s jail failed its annual state inspection recently and the inspector put county commissioners on notice the facility faces decertification unless the Tennessee Corrections Institute “sees the money” at its June meeting.

Inspector Barry Suttles told commissioners last week he realized the county has been working toward resolving its overcrowding issues.

Still, he said, “I have seen no money appropriated to build, no decision about what or where to build. The [TCI] board wants to see the money. They probably want to see money set aside to build and to see a date when construction is going to start.”

He questioned the county’s consideration of building on the present jail’s parking lot and adjoining property and demolishing the present jail.

“Why demolish [the jail] when you can build on a new site?” he asked.

He reminded commissioners that the jail’s capacity is 87 but it regularly houses 120 inmates. He said if his office were to notify the state fire marshal’s office of the extent of overcrowding, the fire marshal would order the facility closed or the number of inmates reduced to the rated capacity.

“If you were to approve construction tonight, it would take two years to build, and you might be looking at 200 [jail] population,” he said.

County Executive George Thacker responded that the commission has been working on the situation.

“I would like to have time to do something right,” he said. “I don’t want to jump in and down the road realize we’ve done something we’ll regret. I think we’ve made a pretty good effort.”

Suttles again told the commission, “In June when the [TCI board] meets, I think they’ll want to see the numbers.”

Commissioner Bill Hollin strongly urged commissioners to support construction at the site of the present jail. He reminded them that there is room, based on the architect’s preliminary drawings, to build a 300-bed facility with city parking available and room for expansion.

Sheriff Mike Neal questioned Hollin’s parking estimate, but added, “the only thing I am opposed to is building a jail without a justice center. Otherwise, we will still have to transport prisoners to this courthouse.”

He added that securing the historic Rhea County Courthouse is almost impossible, particularly with the manpower he has available.

Earlier, the commission’s budget committee approved spending $11,000 to allow a consultant to review potential sites and make a recommendation for a new justice center.

Tom Davis is based in Dayton. Contact him at tsdavis@volstate.net.

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