In Bradley County, where officials are sweating the next state inspection of the county jail, a recent discussion focused on alternative ways to deal with packed cells.
Overcrowding is acute at the Bradley jail, with 408 beds and more than 520 inmates when the county commission's law enforcement committee met June 13. The facilities director, former sheriff Dan Gilley, had just resigned in despair, saying overcrowding, understaffing and a laundry list of maintenance problems made it unlikely the jail would get a passing grade from Tennessee Corrections Institute inspectors.
A new, 140-bed workhouse opening around mid-July will help, but with 7,400 or so unserved warrants stacked up and more coming in every day, it isn't enough to relieve overcrowding, committee members and sheriff's department officials agreed.
What they kept coming back to was discussing ways to punish wrongdoers and keep the public safe in ways that don't necessarily involve iron bars. Primarily, they focused on electronic monitoring and helping people charged or convicted of crimes get or keep jobs.
Commissioner Terry Caywood told a story about the son of an old friend who got in trouble and served time for a felony. Once the man was freed, Caywood helped him get a driver's license and find a job, and he did fine until his work ended after two years.
"As soon as he got unemployed, he went back to jail," Caywood said.
Committee Chairman Jeff Yarber said he sees a lot of "generational recidivism," in which fathers, sons and grandsons end up in a cycle of jail and poverty. Those people need real rehabilitation and training and a method of supervision, such as electronic monitoring, that allows them to get jobs and support their families.
Added Commissioner Dan Rawls, "When you eliminate opportunity you can't build enough jails."
Commissioner Howard Thompson said the county also needs alternatives for people awaiting trial. Many of them sit in jail because they can't afford to post bonds. He suggested trying to enlist the district attorney's office and the judges in an ad hoc group to look at the issue, and the committee voted to do that.
On Wednesday, Yarber said he had toured the jail that day and that a state inspector is supposed to be there today. He said the corrections chief, Capt. Gabe Thomas, believes the facility will pass its next state inspection.
"Any issues they have, they're being addressed," Yarber said. "TCI's been good to us, so far, and I hope they'll continue to be good to us."
He said he's going to schedule another law enforcement committee meeting within the next couple of weeks.
"The first thing is finding out what may be wrong throughout the department and start putting plans together," he said. He added the same statement he made at the June 13 meeting.
"This is a 30-year problem and there's not going to be a six-month solution."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.