Knox County can’t shake those jailhouse blues

Betty BeanInside 640, Knox Scene

There were no fireworks this week when the consultant Knox County Commission hired to study the issue of jail overcrowding recommended building a 200-bed intake center on the green space adjacent to the City County Building.


Just wait.

Jail overcrowding has been one of Knox County’s most difficult legal problems since 1989 when the U.S. District Court of Appeals sided with inmate Wayne Carver’s contention that jail conditions here were not just intolerable, but unconstitutional. A long period of federal court monitoring ensued, and the county struggled with a dilemma: The courts had to be obeyed, but nobody wanted a jail anywhere near them, whether in downtown or out in East Knox County.

Thirty years after Carver, the expanded Roger D. Wilson Detention Center on Maloneyville Road is routinely 200 inmates over its 1,036 capacity, and that number does not include more than 200 inmates in the old jail beneath the sheriff’s offices in the Hill Avenue annex to the City County Building. The Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center, billed as a safety valve that would channel mentally ill inmates out of the general population, doesn’t appear to have had much impact.

Mayor Glenn Jacobs paid South Carolina-based Justice Planners $68,000 to analyze the problem, and Alan Richardson, president of the organization, introduced his recommendations at the commission’s September work session Sept. 16. Unless the county changes its ways, he said, the jail population will double in the next 25 years.

Knox County is growing fast, but the jail population is growing faster, not because crime rates are increasing, but because inefficiencies in the system leave inmates – many of whom have not been convicted – sitting in jail longer. The traditional solution would be to spend $40 million to expand the detention center.

Richardson presented alternatives, chiefly the idea of building an intake facility that could process inmates for short-term stays. He recommended putting it on the lawn between the City County Building and First Baptist Church. It would be an efficient, affordable alternative to those round trip paddy wagon rides between downtown and Maloneyville.

He also had some “quick win” solutions to make the system more efficient – one of which would be to get Sessions Court judges, who only have morning dockets, to work a full day.

Attorneys who use that time to plan and prepare cases will likely oppose this. It probably will not be popular with the five Sessions Court judges, who each take a week off every five weeks on a rotating basis.

None of the commissioners seemed fazed by Richardson’s suggestions. Maybe that’s because they weren’t required to vote at the workshop session. Or maybe it’s because nobody remembers what happened the last time the county proposed building a new intake center downtown.

Hint: It wasn’t pretty.

During the late 1990s, the search for solutions somehow morphed into a plan to build a great big justice center in the middle of downtown that would contain courts and clerks and prosecutors plus a jail full of inmates.

Near-mayhem broke loose. There were tears and threats and big angry crowds. Somebody even sang opera one night.

The attorney general and the sheriff commenced to fighting, Herb Moncier weighed in, and peace-loving County Executive Tommy Schumpert got winged in the crossfire. It all went to hell when Sheriff Tim Hutchison became the contractor and Hutchison’s supporters on County Commission threw Big Jim Haslam off the board of the Public Building Authority, triggering a Pearl Harbor-sized headline in the daily paper that used the word atrocity.

Eventually, the county stepped back, scaled the plan down and proposed building an intake center on the above-mentioned green space that is jointly shared by city and county governments. It made economic sense because it would avoid the 24-mile round trip out to the detention center.

That’s when Mayor Victor Ashe told them to stay off his lawn.

In the end, they hoisted the white flag and expanded the detention center out on Maloneyville Road while honoring a promise to that community not to bring maximum-security inmates out there.

Ashe says he’s not sorry he blocked a Main Street jail 20 years ago and is astonished that the county is revisiting the idea.

“They’ve revived that idea? Both sides (the city and the county) have to agree, and I told them I wouldn’t agree to it. I would hope Mayor Rogero or whoever might succeed her will do the same. To tear up one of the last two green spaces in the city to build a jail is just crazy… Hopefully, somebody will stand up for green spaces.”

Ashe probably won’t be the only one to oppose this plan. The number of downtown dwellers has exploded since the last round of jail fights, and even Knox County is trying to get into the gentrification game with its plan to unload the Andrew Johnson building to a developer.

Spectacular views will be a selling point. A tasteful new hoosegow is probably not what anybody’s going to want to look at from the deck of their million-dollar AJ penthouse condo.

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