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Editorial: A few hard facts about the Sullivan County Jail

Editorial Board • Apr 24, 2019 at 1:04 PM

There’s nothing like a hard dose of reality for county commissioners who may be complacent about county jail overcrowding. Sullivan County commissioners got it in spades recently from Dr. Martha Parker, who has worked under contract at the Sullivan County Jail for three years.

Among her comments:

The jail is “unsafe for inmates and it is unsafe for officers.”

• Officers “were overwhelmed when I got here. They’re drowning now.”

• “We’re gluing heads every day. The more crowded it becomes, the more injuries we see.”

• “Last year in one four-month period there were six broken jaws and four orbital fractures. Those are serious injuries and they cost a lot of money.”

• So far this year there have been 124 inmate-on-inmate assaults, three inmate-on-officer assaults, 58 uses of force, 330 disciplinary reports and 393 incident reports.

And, here’s the bombshell:

• “This place is going to blow.”

Dr. Parker may have used those powerful words for effect. But all indications point to a powder keg with the fuse slowly burning.

Commissioner Angie Stanley agreed that the situation at the county jail is desperate. She said she has toured the jail many times in recent years and has viewed “very disturbing” videos of violent acts inside the jail. Stanley said it’s somebody’s child or parent or grandparent who is getting the life beaten out of them in inmate-on-inmate assaults.

“It’s inhumane,” Stanley said, noting that there is gang activity connected to the violence. “We have got to do something. There are two officers for 268 inmates? That’s insane.”

Indeed it is.

Jail Administrator Lee Carswell told commissioners the crime rate has grown in Sullivan County, but the number of personnel in the justice system has not. Carswell said inmate-on-inmate assaults average 30 to 35 per month. The main jail’s outdated linear design (it was built in the 1980s) is the worst possible when it comes to manpower needed to keep an eye on inmates, Carswell said. Overcrowding, which has been a problem for years, only makes things worse. In one male inmate housing area, there are more than 300 prisoners with two officers per shift.

Combined, the two facilities are certified to house 619 inmates. In recent months they’ve housed more than 900 — exceeding 980 on some days. Other factors are a high, and costly, turnover rate among jail employees, as well as constant overtime (which is one factor in losing employees), Carswell said.

In 2017, 65 new hires were made for the jail and 41 resigned or were terminated, costing the county $340,000 in lost training costs. In 2018, there were 52 new hires, 33 resigned or were terminated, and the cost to the county was about $274,000.

Carswell and Parker were before the commission to support a resolution by Commissioner Hunter Locke to fund the hiring of 32 employees for the jail. Locke said the request is to add a population manager; a registered nurse; four licensed practical nurses (one per shift); four shift sergeants (one per shift); two transportation officers; four officers for male housing; four officers for female housing; four officers for maximum security housing; four officers for male inmates at the expansion; and four booking officers.

The total cost, including training, equipment and benefits, would be roughly $2 million.

But apparently, there’s another cost you haven’t heard about. And neither have we.

Stanley said that as a member of the commission’s Executive Committee for several years, she has heard and voted on multiple lawsuits over issues at the jail, and the money that’s been paid out would have covered what is being requested by Locke’s resolution.

Commissioner Stanley says the county has paid at least $2 million over just several years to settle lawsuits. Why has that information not been previously revealed?

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The Sullivan County Commission cannot continue to look the other way and hope the jail problems will disappear. That’s not going to happen. In fact, it’s going to worsen to the point that the state — or the feds — will step in and force action. Rest assured, that is not the desired course of action.

Act now, commissioners. Start with approving Locke’s resolution. Then get on with renovating the existing jail or building a new one. Else $2 million in settlements will look like pocket change.

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