Jail problems can dominate 2019

Sandra ClarkGossip and Lies

The chief challenge facing Knox County is not new or unexpected. Jail overcrowding is back with a bang.


John Eldridge, the attorney who has driven jail reforms for decades, has filed a new federal lawsuit on behalf of 12 inmates, challenging conditions at the county’s Roger Wilson Detention Facility and asking for relief. Eldridge is joined by attorney Francis Lloyd.

Their clients assert a litany of complaints, ranging from lack of medical attention to disregard of grievances. A pregnant inmate is sleeping on a mat on the floor. The full complaint is Inmates_Spangler_2018_Complaint.

Sheriff Tom Spangler declined comment since he’s a defendant. The suit also names Chief Deputy Bernie Lyon and Knox County.

In 1986, Eldridge and University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin sued Knox and other counties in U.S. District Court, arguing that inmates’ constitutional rights were being violated in overcrowded jails.

Judge James “Jimmy” Jarvis agreed. He ruled in 1988 that conditions in the Knox County Jail (on a lower floor of the City County Building) were unconstitutional.

That case was still alive in November 2016, according to a story by Betty Bean in Shopper News. She quoted Law Director Bud Armstrong: “We’re still under the (Jarvis) ruling and we still have a special master over efforts to curb overcrowding at the Knox County Jail.”

Knox County responded in part by building pods and shifting inmates to the detention facility on Maloneyville Road. And now that facility is overcrowded.

As Bean wrote earlier, overcrowding leads to bad conditions. “Inmates in the Maloneyville facility often are locked down in their cells 23 hours a day, not because of bad behavior, but because of understaffing.”

She quoted a ruling by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that says, in part, that the district court should “first analyze local conditions in terms of food, ventilation, condition of cells and holding areas, medical care, acts of violence, sanitation, ratio of guards to inmates, eating arrangements, and other similar practices and circumstances and then fashion a remedy for the ‘uniquely local’ practices and circumstances causing any unconstitutional violations found to exist.”

Now the clients of Eldridge and Lloyd are making familiar claims: abolition of in-person visitation, inadequate exercise opportunities, inflated commissary prices, lack of access to a proper law library, inadequate mental health treatment, and lockdown policies driven by understaffing.

Sheriff Spangler took office in September 2018. In October he led a tour of jail facilities for Knox County commissioners and Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Spangler advocated expansion of the Maloneyville Road facility, which frequently houses more than its rated capacity.

And before you start yelling about spending money to improve conditions for law violators, remember this: Roughly two-thirds of those incarcerated at the detention facility are awaiting trial. They’re too poor to post bail. All 12 of Eldridge’s clients are pretrial detainees (aka innocent until proven guilty).

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