Sullivan jail crowding solution plans coming by next month

J. H. Osborne • Oct 7, 2019 at 1:44 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The magnitude of how far Sullivan County is willing to go to address its longtime jail problems is yet to be seen, but proposals include everything from expanding current facilities to building a whole new jail and justice center — that some officials are pushing to include consolidation of all county courtrooms and judgeships to Blountville. 

Little has been said publicly about that last point. But lawyers and judges in Kingsport and Bristol have heard about it, and so far the Times News hasn’t found a single one keen on the idea. In theory, such a move would save the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in the way of transportation costs. On the flip side, it would require everyone who today goes to court in either city (defendants, plaintiffs, arresting officers, witnesses, detectives, attorneys, and judges) to instead travel to Blountville for court. Whatever economic impact courthouse activities have on the two downtowns would likely decrease.

Last month the Sullivan County Commission heard a presentation that included two tentative alternatives for solving the county’s jail problems: expansion of current facilities or building on a new site.

The projected cost of expanding and renovating current Sullivan County jail facilities is nearly $85 million, according to a presentation to the County Commission last week by the consulting firm hired earlier this year.

Building a completely new jail on a new site and designed with potential to add courtrooms later carries a price tag of more than $110 million — not including the cost of land or the later addition of courtrooms.


The $85 million figure is based on one conceptual design first presented a few weeks ago. It would more than double the number of certified beds, from about 619 to more than 1,400, and it is projected to meet the county’s needs for 20 years.

In recent weeks, it hasn’t been unusual for the county’s two jail facilities to hold more than 1,000 inmates total. The 1,400 figure being able to handle the jail population for the next 20 years is based on the assumption that new programs to educate and help inmates address addiction issues succeed in reducing the need for space by 15%.

This concept would renovate the existing main jail and add a single-story addition to its back with five “pods,” each housing 56 inmates in two-man cells. Each pod has its own “yard,” where inmates are allowed for recreation each day. The pods, while described as “single-story,” actually are the height of two stories — with a “mezzanine” level along each side. There are cells on the floor level and cells directly above on the mezzanine. Guard stations are positioned in a hallway overlooking the pods from about the mezzanine level.

Each pod also includes a classroom for programs aimed at reducing recidivism and a room to be used by jail medical staff. The design greatly reduces the movement of inmates within the jail. The addition also would house a new kitchen, new laundry and new booking area. This plan also calls for an addition to the jail “annex,” which would house female inmates.

In all, the expansion would increase jail facilities from 125,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet. About $12 million of the $85 million figure is for renovations to the current main jail, which is more than 30 years old — which the consultants described as “100 years in jail years.”

Renovation and expansion of current facilities also presents a challenge because work would be going on while the facilities are overcrowded with inmates.

New jail, new site

While more costly on the front end, a new jail at a new site could cost less over the next 20 years. How? The consultants said it would likely reduce staffing and maintenance costs. They will provide estimates on those savings at a future meeting. They recommended a minimum land parcel of 30 acres.

The new site concept would construct a brand new 300,000-square-foot sheriff’s office and jail facility. It would use the same design for “pods” as the expansion proposal. It would result in the same number of beds. It would be designed to be joined with a new two- to three-story courthouse.