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Ballad Health donation to Sullivan jail under consideration

J. H. Osborne • Jan 16, 2020 at 9:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Ballad Health is offering to donate more than $233,000 to fund and install a full body scanner at the Sullivan County Jail. The Sullivan County Commission will consider a resolution to accept the donation on first reading Thursday night.

First reading means a vote isn’t necessarily going to be called, but it could happen if sponsors or other supporters of the move call for a waiver of the commission’s rules. That’s not an unusual move for a matter such as this.

Sheriff Jeff Cassidy described having the body scanner as “very crucial” in the fight to stop contraband drugs from being smuggled into the jail. It also would help Ballad’s local hospitals by reducing the number of inmates taken in due to the contraband drug problem, Cassidy said.

“It’s a win-win,” the sheriff noted.

“This is going to help us to deter, detect and prevent the introduction of contraband drugs into our facility,” Cassidy said, noting the body scanner is much like the high-tech devices used in airports. “It scans the entire body. ... We can see inside any body cavity.”

Cassidy said the conspiracies to get drugs into the jail are so rampant that former inmates pack their body cavities with drugs and intentionally commit a crime to get caught in order to deliver the drugs to inmates in the jail.

The donation will also help Ballad fulfill a portion of the terms outlined in its COPA (Certificate of Public Advantage), according to wording in the resolution seeking the commission’s acceptance of the donation.

That resolution is sponsored by Commissioner Hershel Glover. Co-sponsors include Commissioners Dwight King, Angie Stanley, Joyce Crosswhite, and Todd Broughton.

Glover said Ballad’s donation will cover the $153,175 cost of the scanner itself, plus $80,000 to cover work needed to install the device. Cassidy said that installation will require 14-foot ceilings, but the ceilings in the jail facility are only 11 feet high. Those modifications will be made to the back entrance of the main jail.

Cassidy said Carter County has had success using a similar device to screen incoming inmates and to randomly scan officers entering that county’s jail.

About $4,000 toward the project will come from his office’s current budget, Cassidy said.

Commissioner Joe Herron asked Cassidy if there are concerns that subjecting incoming inmates to a body scanner violates any civil rights.

“We’ve already got that squared away,” Cassidy replied.

Commissioner Colette George, who also serves on the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, told Cassidy she’s 100% in favor of the resolution, but she will be abstaining from the vote because of accusations some have made against BMA members over Ballad donations.

County Mayor Richard Venable began talking as well, saying George’s comments were straying from the topic. Venable chairs commission meetings.

George pointed out her comments were about a donation from Ballad Health.

“We’ve been accused of taking money from Ballad as kickbacks or whatever,” George said.

“I’m not going to take an explanation from the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen here tonight, commissioner,” Venable said.