Loudon County Sheriff’s Office is having to get creative with a high inmate population until the jail expansion opens in early 2020.
As of Thursday, Capt. Jake Keener, LCSO jail administrator, noted the jail had a population of 201. Of that count, 139 were males and 62 were females.
“Now two days ago we were 215,” Keener said. “We have sessions court on Wednesdays. That’s our saving grace, and so today we’re 201. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.”
A high inmate count has been commonplace in recent years. The average this year has been 174 in a facility only certified for 91 beds, Keener said.
“For the past two years these months we’ve hit 200,” Keener said. “This is abnormally high. We don’t plan for it in our budget; we certainly don’t expect it. Our budget changes July 1. I think we’re planning probably a little better for it this year since we were hit with an unexpected last year, but it certainly hurts with our food budget, our medical expenses.
“I’ve got a hallway converted to house males, I’ve got an indoor recreation unit that I have females housed in, and so it causes problems for my officers because those units don’t have bathrooms or showers,” he added. “I have officers come in, they spend eight hours basically just moving inmates to the facilities.”
Keener has overtime budgeted for officers. When the inmate count hits 150, the standard is to have four officers on duty at one time, but Keener noted there’s no “standard to when I’m at 200 because it’s new to us.”
“So trying to keep five or six officers on shift is really the only thing I can do,” he said.
The jail expansion will increase capacity to 264 inmates, including 193 new male beds and 71 female beds. The project is scheduled to be complete in early 2020. There is also room for future expansion.
If the facility were finished today, Keener estimated the female population could be near capacity. Overall capacity is a concern, he said.
“That’s a fear, absolutely,” Keener said. “And the judges, officers, everyone’s working with us trying not to overwhelm us as we are now, but of our 201 inmates, 159 are not sentenced. We only have 42 that are sentenced at this time.”
Loudon County Commissioner Van Shaver at the July commission workshop requested 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson and others be present at the August workshop to help commissioners better understand what can be done.
“If you look at our population records over the years it’s obvious to see that our jail population is being increased dramatically by those sitting in the jail waiting to go to criminal court,” Shaver said.
He shared with commissioners the jail population of the past few months.
“I’ve done a new one now that’s got for years, I think I went back 10 years, and where we used to have 25 or 30 waiting to go to criminal court, we’re now running into the 90s waiting to go to criminal court,” Shaver said. “I would like to understand why this is the case and is there anything we can do to alleviate this problem. I mean ultimately it’s going to break the county if we don’t do something. ... The bottom line is what the state’s doing is making all us local jurisdictions house their inmates is what it comes down to, whether they’ve been to court or not been to court. This is a state matter and criminal court only meets three times a year so the number can’t do anything but just get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Shaver said he simply wants to better understand the problem.
Keener on Monday said the jail only has six state-related inmates.
In the past there have been efforts to reduce bonds and sentences for minor offenses, Sheriff Tim Guider said.
“It’s been helpful but right now we keep climbing. It’s hard to control that,” Guider said. “You want to keep the people that are doing more serious crimes in jail and that’s our job.”
Inmate population is an issue for many communities.
“Surrounding counties are holding much more than we’re holding right now, every county around us. Monroe (County), their new jail I think is pushing — I mean it’s going to be at capacity around the upper 300s is what I’m hearing, close to 400 is their new capacity, Roane County about the same,” Guider said. “Blount County, of course, is larger. I was talking to Sheriff (Tom) Spangler this morning and of course they’re running about ... 1,500-1,600 right now (in Knox County), maybe more than that. We’re just hoping to get in this facility to ease the growing pain and accommodate these inmates the way they should be. We’re not trying to treat them like royalty or anything, but the necessities have to be met.”
The current expansion leaves room for another pod if needed, which Guider believes could be recommended down the line.
“We’re spending $17 million to add a new jail, we’re adding $1 million to the sheriff’s budget for new jailers and if we can’t get these people adjudicated and get them either found guilty, sent to state penitentiaries or found innocent or whatever’s going to happen their case has to be adjudicated before they can get out of our jail,” Shaver said. “... Nobody in the world’s going to be ready to talk about another addition anytime soon, not when we have these avenues to try to eliminate our problem through quicker court proceedings.”
Safety a concern
“I mean it’s a huge concern when your officer-to-inmate ratio is certainly not what we would like it to be,” Guider said. “When we go into trying to intervene when there’s a fight or a controversy it’s always a safety concern to go in a large room when you’ve got say 50 inmates and two officers or three officers, but then the inmates’ safety is a concern due to the fact that we might not be able to get there fast enough in the event of an outbreak.”
With a high population, Keener admitted there can a greater chance of violence.
“It certainly makes it more dangerous,” he said. “We do our walk-throughs — in our misdemeanor pod when we have 32 beds and 50 inmates, we’re in there every hour on the hour. Officers are having to step over inmates sleeping on the floor. So officer presence certainly happens, but you can imagine incidents do arise. We have more fights, more problems, because when you force them in there they tend to argue and fight a lot more.”
Commissioners in July granted additional funding for more jailers.
Keener said the department has begun the process to eventually bring on more officers, which is “exciting.”
“We are in the process of testing and interviewing a few,” Guider said. “There were two I think immediate hires that we needed to make because we had a couple of vacancies and so we needed to fill those, but we’re not going to actually hire until we’re — I mean we’re doing some preliminary stuff, like I said, testing and interviews, but hiring will not take place until probably October.”