Price tag is just under $23 million for new jail, justice center in Rhea County, Tennessee

Price tag is just under $23 million for new jail, justice center in Rhea County, Tennessee

January 24th, 2019 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Rhea County leaders are studying financing options to building a new $23 million jail and justice center at the old Rhea Medical Center site on the north end of Dayton, Tenn. Officials say the old medical center, shown here in a photo from 2015, has undergone considerable clean up and demolition in the past few years to ready it for the project.

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

A cost estimate for construction of a new, nearly 300-bed jail and justice center to be built on the old Rhea Medical Center site on the north end of Dayton, Tennessee, falls just shy of $23 million.

Rhea County leaders this week got the $22.7 million tally from contractor Dillard Construction, the construction manager for the project, after the firm's presentation of subcontractor bids to the Rhea County Commission.

Rhea County leaders are studying financing options to building a new $23 million jail and justice center at the old Rhea Medical Center site on the north end of Dayton, Tenn. Officials say the old medical center, shown here in a photo from 2015, has undergone considerable clean up and demolition in the past few years to ready it for the project. This photo shows the old hospital emergency room entrance which will become the booking area for the jail.

Rhea County leaders are studying financing options to...

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

Commission Chairman Jim Reed said Thursday the next steps are to secure funding and award a contract to build an approximately 90,000-square-foot facility that will also house offices for the courts and the sheriff's department.

"We have had bids come in, and we are currently working on the process of securing funding, as well as finalizing the paperwork," Reed said, noting the complications of building a facility to meet state requirements for jails and courtrooms.

Reed said the commission has a lot of options to study before making a decision on financing.

The new jail and justice center facility will replace the aging, consistently overcrowded 88-bed jail behind the historic Rhea County Courthouse downtown, and give the old courthouse's current court operations a modern home. The old jail was decertified in 2011 for overcrowded conditions and recertified in 2012 under new guidelines to help counties struggling to meet state standards. In June 2017, with the tiny jail packed with more than 200 inmates, state officials ordered the county to reduce its inmate population by 50 percent and to fix its overcrowding problems.

Officials eyed the Rhea Medical Center property and other land for a few years before they started in 2015 to focus their sights on conversion of the old hospital. The property offers a building site, adaptable structures and parking to make a good starting point.

Reed said public safety is important, too.

"Currently, we're walking prisoners right across the street," he said Thursday of the trip inmates take from the old jail to the old courthouse.

Once they get to the courthouse, inmates must mount the public stairs or elevator to get to the building's courtrooms, in close proximity to people doing business at the various court offices. Inmate movements can be much more controlled in a justice center, where entries and passageways can be secured away from public areas, he said.

Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said the moves forward couldn't come soon enough.

Since the current jail can't legally house more than 88 inmates, the usual additional 70 to 80 inmates in Rhea County custody must be housed in other counties at $37 a day per inmate, Neal said Thursday.

Neal said 15 female inmates now are being housed in Haywood County, near Memphis, while the men are scattered at other jails in Anderson, Bledsoe, Polk, McMinn, Bradley and Meigs counties.

That also means Rhea County officers must go get out-of-county inmates for hearings or to bond out, which creates more expense and has forced the hiring of seven more people to handle the added hassle, he said.

County money being spent to house, transport and track out-of-county inmates could be going toward the new jail, Neal said.

Reed said the next steps set the stage for the project.

"We're down to the point of actually awarding the bids in the near future, securing the financing. Of course, all that hinges upon the majority vote of the county commission," he said. "We are knee-deep in the process of putting together our options to determine what is the best way to spend this public money."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.