Rhea sheriff says something needs to be done to address jail overcrowding as state issues warning
The Rhea County Jail was built to house 87 people, but more than 200 were crammed in Wednesday, creating poor living conditions and possible fire hazards.
"If this was an animal shelter, I'd be in jail," Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said Wednesday.
The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance on Tuesday ordered the jail to reduce its inmate overpopulation by 50 percent within the next 30 days and completely eliminate overcrowding within 60 days.
In addition, Neal is required to provide a monthly report on daily inmate populations to the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the state agency that sets minimum standards for jails, for the next year.
The jail, which was built in 1962, is approved to house only 87 inmates, but as of Wednesday afternoon, Neal said the jail had 205 inmates with only two guards. Holding cells are having up to 11 inmates when most are built for four. In the women's area, 25 inmates are jammed into an eight-bed cell with a leak in the ceiling that needs a mop bucket to keep the bed mats from getting wet.
If the sheriff does not submit written proof of a reduction in the overpopulation by the end of the 30 days and complete elimination of the overpopulation by the end of the 60 days, the state fire marshal or district attorney may cite the sheriff to court for an injunction.
The order listed several deficiencies found by the State Fire Marshal's Office, and after four inspections since Feb. 16, four of the six deficiencies — most of which were fire safety violations — were resolved with the exception of the overcrowding violation and a lack of easily accessible emergency keys to unlock cells in case of fire.
Despite the overcrowding, the female inmates said they think the jailers are doing the best they can with what they have.
"It's not a jail problem, it's a court and county problem," said one female inmate in a group of several anxious to have their voices heard.
"It's ridiculous," said inmate Kristina Friddell, who was booked June 23 for violation of probation, according to the Rhea County Jail's website. "You have people falling off the bunks because they can't get down to use the bathroom at night because everyone is on the floor. The roof leaks. The sink leaks. The shower has mold in it. We step all over each other."
The men said they try to get along, but there is often violence with new inmates coming in and out of cells each day. One inmate had a healing black eye he said he got in jail.
"All 11 of us are stuck in here for 23 hours a day with only one hour to make phone calls and shower," said one inmate. "You can't get all of these men showered within one hour."
Inmate Salomon Veliz, who was charged with theft under $1,000 on March 5, said he had a staph infection for two weeks and was taken to the isolation cell until it healed.
Last week, on June 21, an inmate was found dead in an observation cell, according to WRCB News Channel 3. Amanda Davis was arrested on June 17 and died the day after her court appearance. Neal told the Times Free Press she was taken to the "drunk tank" where guards could talk to her and give her water, but she was not on constant monitoring. He said Davis did not ask to go to the doctor. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was called to the jail, and a toxicology report is pending to determine the cause of death, according to WRCB.relatedarticlethumb
Despite the claims of lack of medical care from the inmates, Neal said the jail has not been cited for a violation of medical services before, and in two 2016 inspection records from the TCI, the only deficiencies concerning medical services included a lack of documentation of an annual meeting between the sheriff and a health authority, as well as several inmates refusing 14-day physicals. By the second inspection, the only note was a recommendation to encourage inmates to receive the physicals.
Neal said an inmate who has a minor medical problem has to fill out a form asking to be seen by the doctor who comes once a week. If an inmate needs to see a doctor when she is not there, the sheriff said he can call her to determine whether the inmate needs to go to her office or if it can wait until the following visit. But, "If their sugar's dropped or something serious, we just load them up and take them to the emergency room," he said.
Overpopulation is an issue Neal inherited when he became sheriff 15 years ago, he said. At the time, he said the jail could only house 60 or so inmates, but with an addition that was built in the early 2000s, its capacity rose to 87.
"My headcount has never been at 87," he said. "Court will let 20 go and then we'll get 40 warrants to serve."
Most of those warrants are for violations of probation or drug-related charges, which is nothing new, Neal said. "[The number of offenders has] just continuously progressed and that's what's happening in all the counties."
He said he is going to have to ask for help housing inmates from surrounding county jails, and he estimated the cost at $1 million per year of taxpayer money — excluding transportation costs — until a new jail is built, which he estimates would take two years once construction begins.
"We've been in the process [of building a new jail] since 2011 with the county commission trying to move forward on getting a new facility built or adding to this facility because of overcrowding," Neal said.
Kevin Walters, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, said "TCI will assist Rhea County through the County Corrections Partnership to resolve long-term overcrowding and facility plans."
Tuesday evening, the county commission voted to hire Hewlett Spencer LLC, a Nashville-based construction company, as the project manager for the new jail, Neal said. The county is looking at possibly building the new jail on property on Highway 27 North, where a former hospital sits, or on a 7- acre lot that does not have an existing building.
Rhea County Mayor George Thacker said the county is waiting on the construction company to decide which of the two properties is most cost- effective to build the new jail. He said he hopes to know by June 30.
Thacker said there is no good reason for why it's taken so long to move forward with plans for a new jail.
"There's just been other things we needed to get done," he said, giving the example of the school that was built roughly five years ago. It took two years to build and cost $35 million.
"I want to get this done," he said of the new jail. "I'm hoping to break ground within 90 days."
However, until the new jail is completed, the task remains to find new housing for the 118-inmate surplus. That will be no easy task, given that jails across the country continue to experience their own overcrowding problems. While the nation makes up roughly 4.4 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 20.7 percent of the world's prisoner population, based on 2015 data compiled by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research's World Prison Brief.The Hamilton County Jail, which was built in 1976, for example, underwent an $8 million renovation and expansion in 1993 so that it could house 520 inmates instead of 275.
In 2016, the jail was cited for having many inoperable fixtures, such as showers, toilets and lights. In March of that year, Chief of Corrections Joe Fowler said he believed the jail was failing to provide acceptable living conditions to inmates because some inmates didn't have regular access to showers or toothbrushes. But building a new facility has been an unpopular issue in the past for county commissioners who have wrestled with whether to spend funds building a new jail versus building new schools.
Jails in Bradley, Meigs, Franklin and Marion counties are nearing or currently experiencing overcrowding problems. The most recently opened county jails include Grundy County, 2016; Coffee County, 2015 and Bledsoe County, 2011.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.
Updated June 28 at 11:17 p.m. with additional information.