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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / The Rhea County Justice Center is located just north of downtown Dayton, Tenn., on Rhea County Highway.

The Rhea County Justice Center is finally complete.

After half a decade of work, the public can tour the new facility during an open house Friday and Saturday, according to Sheriff Mike Neal, who issued the invitation on social media.

"This building is something that the entire community can be proud of," Neal said. Sheriff's office staff will conduct the tours, and the public will see more beds than planned for, he said.

That was a surprise Neal got when the Tennessee Corrections Institute certified the jail, he said.

"The new jail is certified to hold 250 men and 92 women and, that's 342 total," Neal said. "They gave us more beds than we expected. We gained 18 beds or so."

Photo Gallery

New Rhea County Justice Center

Certified beds include those for male and female trustees and space for people to serve weekend sentences for drunk driving and similar charges, he said.

Otherwise, he said sheriff's office administration staff and the detectives have already moved in, and inmates will take up residence in their new digs in the next couple of weeks.

Until then, the building is ready for Rhea County residents to come view.

(READ MORE: Rhea County Jail begins transferring inmates to reduce overpopulation)

The cost of the project has dropped from original estimates that were as high as $25 million, said District 7 County Commissioner Jim Vincent, who is also the county building inspector hired in 2019 to oversee the county's interests in the project.

"It's gone well. We're way below budget — several hundred thousand — we don't have the exact number yet but it's somewhere between $450,000 and $600,000 [below]," Vincent said.

The project was done around the end of the year, while the paperwork required to open took another 30 days, he said.

The new justice center uses parts of an old hospital's buildings and campus and replaces the county's aging, perpetually overcrowded 87-bed jail and space-limited sheriff's office behind the historic 1891-era Rhea County Courthouse downtown.

The new facility gives general sessions, circuit and chancery court operations previously inside the old courthouse a modern, safer home. Now those tenants are moving in, along with state troopers, state parole and probation services, the public defender's office and court clerks, Vincent said. Other agencies might find homes in the new justice center, too.

"It's gone well, and we're real pleased with the building. We had a lot of compliments from the state on the quality of it," Vincent said. "It turned out nicer and better looking that we'd even hoped for."

IF YOU GO

What: Rhea County Justice Center open house

Where: 7800 Rhea County Highway, Dayton, Tenn.

When: Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

Important details: Masks and social distancing will be required and tour groups will be limited to 10 or less. Masks for those who don’t have one and hand sanitizer will be available.

More information: 423-775-7837

Source: Rhea County Sheriff’s Office

 

The old county jail was decertified in 2011 for overcrowded conditions and recertified in 2012 under new guidelines created to help counties struggling to meet state standards. In June 2017, with the out-of-date jail packed with more than 200 inmates, state officials ordered the county to reduce its inmate population by 50 percent and to find a solution for its overcrowding problems.

Officials eyed the medical center property and other land for a few years before setting their sights in 2015 on conversion of the old hospital, which offered a building site, adaptable structures and a large parking area. Portions of the hospital dated back to the 1950s or 1960s.

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

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