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Editorial: How does Sullivan jail compare to others?

Editorial Board • Dec 28, 2019 at 9:00 PM

It’s certainly good news for the county that the state has, once again, certified the Sullivan County Jail despite critical overcrowding and increased inmate-on-inmate violence, and despite that the jail is the most overcrowded in the state. The Tennessee Correctional Institute certified the jail following an inspection in August.

The state compiles a monthly report on jail capacity and load statewide, and the most recent — covering October — shows that no jail in Tennessee was exceeding capacity more than Sullivan County. The jail plus the annex has 619 beds but in October held 1,067 inmates, almost double its capacity.

Only eight county jails statewide have more capacity than Sullivan, and none of them surpassed Sullivan’s inmate load as a percentage of available beds in October. Washington County has 634 beds and in October held 568 inmates; Shelby with 3,706 beds had 1,783 inmates; Davidson, 2,136 beds and 546 inmates; Hamilton, 1,084/93; and Montgomery, 736/254.

Only two other county jails with more capacity than Sullivan were exceeding it in October, but neither was even close to Sullivan. Knox County with 1,036 beds had 1,105 inmates, and Sumner County with 832 beds had 907 inmates.

It is fortunate for the county that the Tennessee Correctional Institute can’t shut down a jail. Only the state fire marshal can do that. But loss of certification would affect state funding and insurance rates, and it seems extraordinary that TCI would give Sullivan yet another pass with hundreds of inmates sleeping on the floor, showers and other services over capacity, inmates crowded into non-cell space for exercise, and an inability to separate violent and non-violent offenders.

Even a class-action lawsuit over these horrid conditions did not cause the jail to lose certification. The jail has been operating under a plan of action since 2014.

The TCI recertified the jail Dec. 4 during a meeting in Nashville. Sheriff Jeff Cassidy was at that meeting and presented a progress report of actions being taken to address the overcrowding situation including plans to start a pretrial release program. Sheriff Cassidy is articulate and professional in his approach and deserves credit for the state’s decision to give Sullivan County’s jail another pass.

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