Tennessee OKs Bledsoe prison upgrades

NASHVILLE - The State Building Commission on Thursday gave the green light to more than a half-billion dollars worth of construction and upgrades for dozens of projects, including a $30 million, 512-bed expansion of the Bledsoe Correctional Facility in Pikeville.

The expansion will handle medium-security prisoners. The project also will provide minor modifications to house female inmates in separate security facilities within the complex.

Commission members also approved some $21 million to beef up security at state prisons, including $4.4 million for a specialty security contractor to replace what a Building Commission document described as "aging and failing locking systems" in facilities statewide.

Many of the projects were included in the new state budget that went into effect July 1 but required commission approval to proceed.

Closer to home, the commission gave the go-ahead for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to proceed with a planned $8.7 million expansion of its central energy system, including selection of a designer.

The project includes installing a 1,500-ton electric chiller and a high-temperature hot water generator as well as a 6,000-ton cooling tower.

Other approved projects or grants include:

• Harrison Bay State Park in Hamilton County will see $1.8 million in funding to renovate an additional 88 campsites, two bath houses and utilities in the park's B and C camping areas. The money represents the second phase of an ongoing project.

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner with the Department of Environment and Conservation, said following the meeting that Harrison Bay is one of the busier parks in the state system.

"It's a great park and it continues to do well," he said.

• A $500,000 grant for the Chattanooga History Museum to help cover the costs of a new building and exhibits.

• The Tennessee Aquarium and the Chattanooga Zoo are each getting $250,000 grants.

State Correction Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield later declined to go into details about the prison security infrastructure described as "aging and failing."

"We don't get into a lot of specifics about it, but our system of prisons is probably in the range of 20 years old," Schofield said. "We look at upgrading them. We do things ongoing, but at some point you really have to look at your system and ensure it's consistent with best practices."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.