It was a sobering tour.
Five Knox County Commissioners walked the halls of Knox County’s Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility Oct. 10. They visited “pods,” that house various security levels of inmates, the medical unit, the kitchens and the laundry. They heard about a corrections officer who was stabbed with a pen in the women’s mental health and disciplinary pod. But the real message was delivered before the tour, over lunch, with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs in the room.
Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler is putting the decision-makers in Knox County government on notice. The detention facility has upgraded security and a professional staff. But it’s overcrowded, and Spangler said something needs to be done.
“I want everybody to know. I think everybody out there needs to know about it. It’s growing, and we’ve got to do something. We can’t wait until years down the road,” he said.
The detention facility’s capacity is 1,036 beds. On the morning of the tour, there were 1,153 inmates. But as several speakers, including Spangler, said, it’s not just about beds. Female inmates, a rapidly growing population, must be separated from men. Classifications of inmates, like minimum, medium and maximum security, sick inmates, and inmates with mental illness issues, must be separated from each other. And not doing so opens the county to lawsuits.
“Once we get to 90 percent capacity, our classification system starts to break down,” said Chief of Corrections William Purvis. “This morning, we’re at 111 percent. We have double-bunked everything we can possibly double-bunk in this facility.”
Commissioners Larsen Jay and Randy Smith asked where the inmates were from. Purvis said all the inmates are there for crimes committed in Knox County. In 2017, 12,742 came from Knox County Sheriff’s Office, 9,862 were from Knoxville Police Department, 408 came from UT Police Department, and 164 were from U.S. Marshals.
Other issues include transporting inmates from the East Knox County detention facility to the county jail underneath the City-County Building, where conditions are also overcrowded, and the rising cost of medication and medical care for inmates.
Jacobs and Spangler had to leave after lunch, but Jay, Smith and commissioners Michele Carringer, Justin Biggs and John Schoonmaker went on the tour.
Biggs said he wants to make sure he’s seeing all aspects of the jail overcrowding issue before making a decision. Touring the detention facility, he said, brings some light to the situation.
“To me, it seems like the officers could get hurt pretty easily,” he said.
Schoonmaker said Spangler will make a presentation to the commission’s Finance Committee on Monday.
“I think the good part was the way this facility was first laid out so it can be added onto quickly,” he said, adding that it will still take a lot of funding to expand the jail.