Inspectors find Bradley County inmates crammed into holding cells with no showers, uniforms

The Bradley County Jail, located at the Bradley County Judicial Complex.

As many as 40 or more people are crammed into holding cells in the Bradley County Jail's booking area without uniforms, hygiene supplies or bedding, state inspectors found on a recent visit.

Despite the opening of a 100-bed workhouse and thousands of dollars spent to repair and clean up the jail last summer, the Tennessee Corrections Institute's inspection team found overcrowded cells, broken sinks, toilets and showers, and a leaking roof in a cell area when they inspected on Feb. 22.

The Bradley County Sheriff's Office, in an emailed statement, said much of the blame for overcrowding belongs to the state for allowing people convicted of crimes to stack up in the county jail rather than moving them to state prisons.

Watson TBI file to be closed

The special prosecutor in the case against Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson said Tuesday he has asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to close its file on that 17-month probe.Jimmy Dunn, district attorney general in the 4th Judicial District of Sevier and Cocke counties, said he had written a letter Monday asking TBI to close its file, which ends the case.In January, Dunn dismissed 12 felony charges against Watson of having or using forged vehicle titles in his side business selling used cars. Dunn said he decided not to prosecute, even though Watson technically broke the law, because the sheriff later paid sales taxes on cars he bought in Florida and sold in Bradley County.

"Our correctional staff has made numerous written requests to the Tennessee Department of Corrections to be accepted at their prisons," Communications Director James E. Bradford Jr. wrote in the email.

"The Brian K. Smith workhouse is now operable; however, the primary purpose of this sub-section of our correctional facility is for alternative sentencing which allows low-security inmates the ability to work during incarceration and will not completely address the overcrowding issue."

He said the sheriff's office "averages more than 700 arrests a year since 2014, which ultimately contributes to the overcrowding of our correctional facility."

Maintenance is a daily issue because of inmate overcrowding and wear and tear, but Bradford said the department believes it will receive its annual certification, as it has done for 12 years, upon re-inspection in April. In a separate email Tuesday evening, Bradford said the sheriff's office is upgrading to energy- and cost-efficient LED lights throughout the department, including the jail and recently finished upgrading 42 HVAC units for better performance at a lower cost.

Sheriff Eric Watson is being challenged in the Republican primary by his former Criminal Investigations captain, Steve Lawson.

Lawson said in an emailed statement Tuesday that if elected, he would do a better job with the jail.

"These deficiencies are a direct result of the continued lack of leadership within the department," Lawson wrote. " [U]nder my administration, critical details such as jail maintenance will not be overlooked or minimized due to placing more focus on outside interests and less on the job I would be privileged to serve."

The inspection report is dated Monday. The Times Free Press obtained it through an open records request.

The six holding cells in the booking area "are being used as permanent housing," the inspection report states.

Three of the six cells are designed to hold only one inmate, temporarily, during booking. The others can hold multiple inmates awaiting transfer to the jail's inmate pods.

"These cells are currently holding an average of 40 or more male and female inmates on a daily basis. The average stay is three days with a couple of the inmates currently at six and eight days in the booking area," the report states.

Inspectors found that people held in the booking area weren't being issued uniforms or having their clothes laundered; weren't being given hygiene items, bathing supplies, or sheets and blankets; and that inmates "throughout the facility" were sleeping on dilapidated mattresses and had no access to sheets, blankets, towels or washcloths because the jail had run out.

The report said TCI strongly recommends the sheriff's office buy stacking bunks "to be given to all the inmates sleeping on the floor with mats."

Showers, sinks and toilets throughout the inmate pods needed repairs and the whole area was dirty, the report states.

"All toilets in cells with adjoining pipe chases have back flow problems When one toilet is flushed the water from one cell back flows into the adjoining cell," according to the report.

In the kitchen, residue has built up on the walls, the sink leaks, the vents and returns are dirty and cooking equipment needs to be repaired. "There is still an issue with water standing on the floor in and around the dishwashing area," according to the report.

Inspectors noted security deficiencies but the details were blacked out on the report given to the Times Free Press.

They also found that security check logs aren't being done hourly, as required, and that suicide observation and restraint chair checks aren't being done within the required time.

That has been an ongoing problem at the Bradley jail. In September 2016, inmate Ralph Nelms hanged himself in the booking area. Three guards were later fired and indicted. In January, the county agreed to pay Nelms' children $500,000 to settle a lawsuit.

The multiple deficiencies found in this first inspection are in contrast to some improvements noted when the Tennessee Corrections Institute was there in November.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.