Old and understaffed – those are two words that explain a lot of the problems facing the Cocke County Jail.
In December of last year, six inmates escaped on Christmas Day. It took authorities a week to get all six men back in custody. One escaped all the way to Georgia.
Earlier this month, one man escaped custody, leading law enforcement on a week-long manhunt.
The issues the jail faces with handling inmates can be traced back to the building holding them and the limited staff keeping an eye on them.
The old jail on top of the county courthouse was built in the 1930s, and was built to hold 41 people.
An annex built in 1997 is designed to hold 90 inmates.
Both are regularly over capacity.
To explain the issues, Sheriff Armando Fontes took WBIR inside the jail annex to document the challenges facing his staff.
“We’re pulling inmates from their cells on a nonstop basis in order for them to get their visitation with family,” explained Fontes, detailing the struggles to move and monitor inmates inside the jail.
“Nothing can go really smooth here because you’re trying to serve two facilities out of one,” Fontes said.
During the visit, one inmate showed us what that aggravation leads to.
An inmate requested to be moved from his dorm-style cell to smaller one, already near capacity.
Fontes explained for some being in jail is a reason to act out, without fear of consequences.
“I’m not going to pay my court costs I’m not going to pay my fine what are you going to do? Put me in jail?” he said, describing what he's heard inmates say.
To help handle inmates, the Cocke County Jail sometimes has to shuttle inmates across East Tennessee. They’ll send inmates to Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Claiborne, Sevier and Greene counties to safely house what they can.
For law enforcement the inmate increase is traced to two factors.
“The difference now is every community has seen a huge increase in the female population in their jails, and they are also dealing with an opiate as well as methamphetamine and heroin addiction that has become much more prevalent within the past 10 years,” Fontes explained.
When asked about escapes at the jail, Fontes said it’s a problem for his staff and the community.
“It puts fear for one, because they have an offender that has assaulted or injured a corrections officer and has fled,” he said.
For Fontes, the goal becomes retaining staff that can handle the inmates and doing what he can to meet the needs of Cocke County.
“In order to change people’s lives, I’ve got to have the resources and the ability to provide ministry to provide counseling to provide educational programs," he said.
For Fontes, the jail's issues are financial, and until there’s money to fix them, the problems will persist.
According to Fontes, it would cost the county $30 million to build a new up-to-date facility to serve as a county jail.