published Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Courthouse security a concern for Rhea County jail expansion

By Kimberly McMillian/Correspondent
  • photo
    The Rhea County Courthouse needs security modifications.
    Photo by correspondent Kimberly McMillian

DAYTON, Tenn. — Security concerns at the Rhea County Courthouse are a worry for county officials if the jail is expanded in its current location.

"Security is an issue" for officials and the general public when inmates are escorted from the jail into the courthouse across the street, county Attorney General Mike Taylor repeatedly said during recent meetings of the Rhea County Jail Committee.

Reserve Officer B.J. McCoy said that "sometimes 20 or more" inmates are escorted at one time.

As the inmates are moved, family members of the inmates or victims and pedestrians in the street create risks of potential harm and liability for the county if a security breach occurs, officials said.

McCoy said the courthouse, built in 1891, was "architecturally not conducive to security necessary" for all the traffic inside it. At times, the General Sessions Court on the first floor, Circuit Court on the second floor and Family Court on the third floor "can have activity" with crowds in the courtrooms and stairwells, he said.

"We've got growth issues," McCoy said.

Construction companies that are bidding to renovate the current jail or build a new justice center have been asked for suggestions on how to maintain security if the jail stays in the downtown area or the county builds a new justice center.

Architect James Langford suggested the county install a video system so inmates can stay in the jail but still be present for their arraignment hearings in the courthouse.

"Not staffing [for transportation of inmates] will save the county money," he said.

In a Friday tour of the courthouse, McCoy showed how officers transport inmates from the jail, traveling across a parking lot to the courthouse. He also pointed out weaknesses that he said might lead to an inmate's escape or an opening for anyone seeking revenge upon an inmate.

He said the sheriff's department wanted to avoid an incident similar to the 2005 fatal shooting of Wayne "Cotton" Morgan, a guard at the Morgan County Correctional Complex who was killed while transporting inmate George Hyatte from the Roane County Courthouse.

David Osborn, warden at the correctional complex, said the state has required transportation officers to wear bulletproof vests and "carry a semiautomatic [weapon] instead of a six-shot revolver" since Morgan's death.

Kimberly McMillian is based in Rhea County. Contact her at kdj424@ bellsouth.net

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