Toby Woodlee, part of the crew with local contractor Payne Electric, works to remove a switch box and electric conduit inside the Grundy County Jail on Thursday as Jared Payne passes by with materials. Inmates were shipped to other jails this week so the contractor can have full access to the building while state-ordered repairs are made.Photo by Ben Benton.
ALTAMONT, Tenn. — Grundy County officials say moving inmates out of the county's 1970s-era jail while electrical repairs are made is faster, safer and more cost effective than leaving them there.
County Mayor Lonnie Cleek said the electrical contractor needs unfettered access to the jail building and to be able to turn off the power as needed while making the repairs, required after a state inspection found problems that needed to be fixed immediately.
Inmates were moved to jails in other counties for the time being, Cleek said.
Megan Buell, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, said Thursday that a fire and electrical inspection was performed after a couple of inmates received electric shocks because of electrical problems.
The inmates were not seriously injured, Buell said.
The decision to move the inmates was the county's, not a state order, she said.
"The anticipated date for all this to be complete is July 24," Buell said.
Workers from local contractor Payne Electric were working throughout the building Thursday.
The jail, built in 1973, hasn't been certified by the state since the 1990s. Conditions have been declining for the last several years, drawing warnings from fire and safety inspectors as local officials tried to figure out a remedy.
County officials have been studying plans to build a new 100-bed jail for the last five years, but financing it has been a sticking point.
Officials sought a $7.5 million bond earlier this year that drew a petition in opposition. The price tag for a new lockup has hovered between $7 million and $10.5 million.
On Thursday, Cleek, a former Grundy chief deputy, wasn't sure which counties were able to take the inmates, but he didn't think many went to neighboring counties.
"Most of the housing here close is full. Most of our surrounding counties are in the same situation," he said.
Inspectors over the years have consistently hit Grundy for overcrowding and because the old design doesn't allow separation of violent and nonviolent prisoners and sick inmates. Inspectors also repeatedly noted widespread electrical problems and a lack of working toilets, often just a single working toilet for three to four dozen inmates.
Conditions have not improved much since more than $100,000 was spent on fixes a couple of years ago to keep inspectors at bay while officials work toward a replacement jail.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...