A 911 recording reveals the Bradley County jail commander notified local law enforcement via text message of jail overcrowding on Aug. 18, saying the facility could not receive any more prisoners.
The decision to temporarily stop taking prisoners came one day after an inspection report by the Tennessee Corrections Institute cited the jail for being overcrowded and understaffed.
Freezing jail admissions is "going to tick the [district attorneys] off," Capt. Gabe Thomas, head of the judicial and corrections services division, told Bradley County 911 warrants specialist Tammy Watkins at 5 p.m. that day. "It's going to tick a lot of people off, but I can't have that many people in there."
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Thomas said he had "75 people up in booking" and the corrections division had already told Cleveland police and county sheriff's deputies there was no room for new prisoners. Thomas apologized for not previously advising 911 about the freeze.
Watkins asked Thomas if police officers and deputies should not arrest anyone.
"They can arrest them, but they'll be sitting in their cars," Thomas said. "It doesn't matter what it is, there's nowhere to put them."
That evening, Cleveland police Chief Mark Gibson verified he had received a text message about the jail situation.
"There are 75 inmates in booking with nowhere to house them," the text message stated. "Patrol officers will have to sit in [their] cars until we have room. Which may be until court tomorrow. We've exhausted all measures and will present a list of [inmate] releases to the judge in the morning."
The next day, Gibson said none of his officers actually had to sit with arrestees in their patrol cars. He and Thomas both called the situation unusual.
On Thursday, Bradley County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. James Bradford said in an email the jail booked 27 people on warrants and new criminal charges from the evening of Aug. 18 to 9 a.m. Aug. 19.
He confirmed Thomas sent the text message. However, Sheriff Eric Watson did not know that when initially responding to questions from the Times Free Press about the notification, Bradford said. Additionally, in an Aug. 19 email, Watson denied authorizing a 911 center message sent out separately from Thomas' text message.
Watson spent Aug. 18 flying to Grand Junction, Colo., escorting a Cleveland grandmother reuniting with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Skyla Miller. The girl had been taken from Cleveland by her noncustodial father and was the subject of a 10-day endangered child case.
After Thomas spoke with Watkins, Bradley County 911 messaged officers in patrol cars to ensure they were aware of the situation, 911 Director Joe Wilson said in an email.
"The message sent to the [patrol cars] was merely a follow-up to ensure all patrol was aware," Wilson said. "The 911 center routinely makes notifications on the MDT terminals when issues impact the officers and deputies."
The sheriff's office maintains the 911 center acted without authorization.
Bradford said BCSO policy is for the command staff to tell 911, verbally or in writing, to disseminate a message on behalf of the office. He described the discussion between Thomas and Watkins as an "informative conversation" that should never have been distributed as a 911 notification.
"The 911 Center employee felt the liberty to broadcast the conversation through a typed message sent to multiple officers and deputies without the consent of Capt. Thomas or any other Command Staff member or supervisor from the Sheriff's Office," Bradford said.
Wilson asserted Friday his agency did nothing wrong.
"We've still got a job to do, to make sure we take care of our patrol officers out there," Wilson said. "We wanted to ensure all officers knew of the situation since a text was already out there."
Thomas also told Watkins the jail needed to turn away a man who surrendered on an outstanding warrant. The man would have to come back later, he said.
"I wouldn't come back" under those circumstances, Watkins said.
"I wouldn't either," Thomas said.
Chief Deputy Brian Smith has since ordered jail personnel to never turn away anyone surrendering on an outstanding warrant, Bradford said.
The Bradley County Jail, like many others in the region, is routinely overcrowded.
It is certified for 408 inmates but held 558 on Aug. 18, 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump said that evening, citing a message from Smith.
The Tennessee Corrections Institute cited the problem in its inspection report, the first since June 2015.
"The booking cells are being used as housing due to overcrowding and lack of supplies to dress out the inmates in uniforms and supply them with mattresses," inspector William R. Kane said in the Aug. 15 report. "This area is being used to house an average of 40 or more inmates for several weeks at a time and has not been certified by T.C.I. as inmate housing."
The report cited deficiencies in several areas, which Kane mostly blamed on overcrowding and staff shortages. He strongly recommended the BCSO buy stack bunks to keep inmates from having to sleep on the floor.
The inspection said several sinks in inmate housing areas did not have hot water — or running water, period. Standing water coming from the dishwashing area covered the floor of the food service area and nearby storage spaces. The report called for replacing tiles in the food area and repairs to several showers and toilets. Most inmate showers needed cleaning because of mold, mildew and other residue, according to Kane.
The jail does not document that it disinfects mattresses on a quarterly basis, nor does it document that each inmate receives clothing, a mattress, a blanket, a sheet or a bath towel, according to TCI.
The inspection described the jail's security check logs, suicide watch observation reports and restraint checks as "very vague."
TCI also cited the jail for not documenting its inventories of firearms, Tasers, chemical agents and security equipment on a quarterly basis.
Kevin Walters, spokesman for TCI, said via email the jail will be reinspected Oct. 6, which will bear on the facility's certification in December.
If the overcrowding is still a problem in October, the sheriff and County Mayor Gary D. Davis could submit a plan of action to address the issue and seek to retain certification, Walters said.
Bradford said maintenance crews already have started working on issues cited in the report.
"Every time TCI has brought an issue(s) to our attention that caused us not to pass, we have always corrected them before their next inspection," Bradford said. "Our jail's administration has never been negligent about correcting an issue, especially when it has been brought to their attention."
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.