Sheriff Jim Hammond said transporting inmates and people committed by judges for mental health evaluation and treatment is a huge burden on the corrections staff.
"Every time you do a mental health transport, that's tying up two officers. You may have to go to Memphis one day. Nashville the next. Maybe an in-town transfer. I think we logged in 2,500 miles last month in transferring mental health cases," Hammond said.
However, according to records with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the vast majority of inmates and patients are taken to local facilities.
There were 99 transports last month, according to the sheriff's records. Of those, 68 people were taken to Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, 25 were taken to Parkridge Valley Hospital in Chattanooga and three were taken to Erlanger. The farthest destination was Mountainview Treatment Center in Jasper, 29 miles from Chattanooga.
Michael Rabkin, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said it's rare for Moccasin Bend to defer patients to other hospitals. And the facility received 25 more beds after the Lakeshore hospital in Knoxville closed in July, he said.
Hammond said that five inmates were taken to the state hospital in Memphis in the past year, but state records don't bear that out.
Rabkin said no Hamilton County patients were admitted to the Memphis facility in that time, although three were accepted to Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar, 70 miles east of Memphis.
Records show 14 people from Hamilton County were admitted to Middle Tennessee Mental Institute in Nashville, and none were admitted to Lakeshore.
Hammond said Thursday that sometimes corrections officers arrive in Memphis with an inmate and are turned back because the bed is taken.
Rabkin said that doesn't happen, but Hammond insisted it does.
"They're wrong -- dead wrong. We've been turned back. I can tell you, yes, we have been to Memphis with prisoners," he said.
Chief Deputy Allen Branum said mental health transports took 168 hours in November.
That ties up staff, Hammond said.
"Absolutely, 90 percent are local," he said. "But that's taking men out of the jail. ... There's no doubt the bulk of our transports are local, but they're time-consuming."
On Friday, the sheriff's office provided statistics from its own department on mental health transports. There were no trips to Memphis.
Of the 31 out-of-town trips in 2012, 19 were made to Peninsula Hospital in Louisville, just 15 miles outside Knoxville; three people were taken to West Tennessee Mental Health Institute; seven were taken to Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute; and two were taken to a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in the Nashville area.