TCI recertifies Claiborne County Jail

The struggle to get the Claiborne County Jail recertified is over, for the moment, and Sheriff David Ray says it couldn’t come at a better time. Ray and Chief Deputy Wayne Lee sat down with the Claiborne Progress on Monday to discuss the issue.

Chronic jail overcrowding led to the eventual decertification of the jail, which had been limping along under a Plan of Action that kept the Tennessee Correction Institute (TCI) Control Board satisfied for nearly four years.

As long as the jail continued to show ‘measurable progress,’ the TCI kept the certification intact.

The one ‘jewel’ in the plan, the expansion of the existing jail by nearly double its size, came to a screeching halt when a bond resolution, duly adopted by the Claiborne Commission, was met by a wall of opposition.

A petition to have the matter placed on the ballot led to the bond being voted down at the polls.

The Claiborne Correctional Partnership Act Committee, commonly known as the jail committee, was forced to scrap the expansion project which, according to Lee, was nearly at the groundbreaking stage.

An architectural firm had been hired, who set to work devising a timeline. Geological surveys and core work were done and the architect was in the process of acquiring subcontractors.

Ray said that, once the project was defeated, it was necessary to return to the Plan of Action to see just what could be salvaged. Upgrades to the security locks and cameras had been worked into the cost of the jail expansion project. Now, the county would need to come up with the money to fund the upgrades.

“We had to come back and see what we could do to get this crippled jail certified again. You know, the county spent right at $600,000 just on architectural work.

“The jail expansion was set up to where we would’ve had the jail actually paid for, had it been built, in seven and a half years, easy, without any tax burden to the people of this county,” said Ray.

He spoke of the consequences of exceeding the 210 bed capacity.

“The federal court could make the county pay. And, if we were negligent in some way with overcrowding, there’s a possibility of a big liability, here,” said Ray.

A head count taken on Jan. 28 shows the jail at maximum capacity. All beds were filled with 154 males and 56 females. Of that number, 57 men and 13 women were detained as Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) prisoners, awaiting an open bed at a state penal institution.

Losing certification also meant losing the ability to conduct ‘in-house’ basic and in-service officer training.

“We were able to hold these classes for our people and those in upper east Tennessee all this time we were under a Plan of Action, because the state was proud of where we were going.

“Now, we’re certified for another year, I’m looking forward to not having to spend the extra funding and time sending my people to Johnson City or Knoxville to get them certified,” said Ray.

Once decertified, Lee says the county lost some $1.8 million from the housing of federal and state prisoners, who were transferred to other facilities. That loss created a significant deficit in the county budget, he said.

According to Lee, the budget committee anticipated the jail could generate about $800,000 during the current fiscal year. The department, Lee says, expects to match if not exceed that amount.

While discussing the funds, Lee said he would like to clear up a misconception.

Any state prisoner fees go directly into the county’s general fund, which helps pay for a significant portion of the costs of doing county business.

“It does not go into the jail fund,” said Lee.

Ray and Lee touched upon an apparent misconception about the federal and state prisoners held in the jail.

“The people in the Claiborne County Jail, for the most part, are Claiborne County citizens who committed crimes in Claiborne County. They’ve been arrested by Claiborne County law enforcement. They’ve been tried by the Claiborne County judiciary. They’ve been sentenced to the penitentiary, but are being held in the county jail pending any availability of a bed,” said Lee.

Ray pointed to those currently on bond, awaiting trial.

“Our dockets are so big that we have people right now under investigation, who has committed a crime, that’s been out on bond and their cases have been reset as many as eight or nine times,” said Ray.

Until convicted, the county would not realize any TDOC housing fees from these bonded individuals, he said.

Lee touched upon another general misconception.

“There is a thought in this community that the sheriff arrests these people and then turns them loose, back into the community to repeat any crime they want to. It’s the sheriff’s duty to get them to the jail and to the courtroom. After that, they’re at the mercy of the judges, the district attorney and the judicial system. The sheriff does not release anybody from jail. It takes a judge to do that.

“If everybody got arrested and nobody made bond, look where we’d be,” said Lee, referring to a resurgence of chronic jail overcrowding.

Both men give credit to county government for its part in earning recertification of the Claiborne Jail. The county commission agreed to put aside $198,000 in necessary funds to pay for the vital upgrades to the security locks and cameras and to ‘freshen’ the facility with a coat or two of paint.

It is likely, Lee said, that the jail will continue its upward swing toward overcrowding. An estimated 9,000 prisoners across the state are awaiting a bed in a penitentiary.

Meanwhile, county jails are struggling with the overflow.