Tough choices to combat Blount Co. Jail overcrowding

6:52 PM, Apr 24, 2013   |    comments
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Despite a recent report indicating crime in Tennessee is down, several local jails are showing the number of inmates is up.

On Wednesday, 523 inmates were behind bars at the Blount County Jail, which is only certified to house a maximum of 350 people.

"It's not safe for deputies inside or inmates serving time," said Tab Burkhalter, Blount County Commissioner.

The average number of inmates has been at 552, significantly higher than the max. While each inmate does have a padded place to sleep, commissioners are debating both a quick fix and a permanent solution.

Immediate recommendations included probation services and home monitoring systems. Burkhalter said Knox and Anderson counties already use these techniques to combat overcrowding.

"It solves on the short term, but the question that comes back in with monitoring and probation, what do you do with somebody that violates," asked Burkhalter. "That's still going to put them right back inside the detention center if they violate the probation or violate their monitor."

Another quick solution could have been to stop housing federal and state inmates, which typically total around 175 people.

"Everyone says if we get rid of the federal prisoners, get rid of the state prisoners, that will solve our problem. Right now we have 178 combined federal and state, which generates an additional three million dollars of revenue for us. You do the math. That would still put us over the max," said Burkhalter.

Burkhalter and other commissioners found out Tuesday night rearranging the current pods and adding beds would not be a feasible long-term solution. The structure, built in 1999, was not constructed to easily change the living quarters.

Instead, the county is having the state look into potential ways to build a new facility on the current property.

"The infrastructure is already in place to construct a third pod where we don't have to redo laundry, we don't have redo the kitchen. The intake, that's all self contained," said Burkhalter.

Burkhalter said the county turned down a proposal to build a new pod several years ago.

The potential cost for the construction has not been determined, as commissioners would need to decide which type of facility and security it would build.

The commission will vote on the probation and monitor system at its June 24th meeting. Then, it will dig deeper into numbers and dollar signs needed to build a new pod for a more permanent solution.

Burkhalter said while the plan is the closest to a long-term fix, fighting jail overcrowding is a never ending battle.

"As the population goes up, you're going to have an increase in social crime. That's always going to happen," said Burkhalter. "We need to work on not having repeat offenders."

Blount County is not alone in dealing with overcrowding. Monroe County is trying to build a new detention center, and several East Tennessee counties, including Anderson and Jefferson, have also battled with having too many inmates.

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