By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
If jail is the worst place to be in Putnam County, then Ghina
Robinson's bed in the medium security lockup is probably the worst place
to sleep. Her bed, a small, green vinyl mattress, sits on the floor,
her few belongings - soap, shampoo, a book of word searches - kept
wedged between that mattress and the wall.
"It sucks - people
walking all over you, you wake up you've got everybody else's hair on
you, it's nasty," said Robinson, who was in jail on a violation of
probation charge. "I mean, it's the floor."
Tennessee's jails are
bursting at the seams. Nearly half of the state's 109 jails have more
inmates than beds, some holding two or three times as many inmates as
they are certified for. Detainees in these counties find themselves
sleeping on floors in common areas, using portable showers and toilets
brought in so jails remain legal to operate. They're subject to be
shipped off to other counties when the fire marshal comes calling or the
floor space runs out.
Such overcrowding is costly. Counties with
more inmates than beds may find themselves more vulnerable to lawsuits,
see their jail insurance policies skyrocket or get canceled, have to pay
another county to house some of their inmates or be forced to build a
new jail. And jails are expensive.
In June, Carter County opened a new $26 million jail with 296 beds. By the end of October, all but 18 beds were filled.
2011, 24 counties have built, are building or are in the planning
stages of building new jails to house the overflow of inmates. The
Tennessee Department of Correction is opening a new state prison in
Bledsoe County with 1,500 beds, set to come fully online in March.
this is a drop in the bucket considering that there are nearly 5,000
state felons waiting in jail for prison beds to open up.
been shuffling inmates for years. If somebody's got an empty bed, we're
taking it," said Putnam County Sheriff David Andrews, who has had to pay
other counties to house his county's inmates because of overcrowding.
"Now they're running out of beds."
Inmate population rising
State statistics show an untenable jail situation. Since 2003, the
number of state inmates has risen by 4.5 percent. Jail populations
during that time have grown nearly 42 percent, according to statistics
from the Department of Correction. And bed space has not kept up.
can't say one particular thing is driving that," said Department
Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield. "If we don't have bed space
and the numbers go up in the jail, you're going to have that."
problem has been exacerbated because correction officials
underestimated the number of inmates they expected to enter county jails
over the past year. The state pays counties about $37 per day for each
inmate they house in county jails.
That miscalculation meant the Department of Correction went $20 million over budget this year.
The costs aren't being borne by the state alone.
In the past two years, the Tennessee Corrections Institute,
which regulates and inspects jails, has decertified at least nine
county jails because of overcrowding problems. Lance Howell, deputy
director of the institute, said that while jails can still operate
while decertified, it can lead to problems.
"Their insurance carrier could re-evaluate their insurance. That's one of the most common things we see," he said.
The carrier might raise insurance rates, costing county taxpayers.
could get super expensive," said Bedford County Sheriff Randall Boyce,
whose agency hasn't been decertified but has dealt with overcrowding for
years. "Insurance premiums go out of sight. And you can get ready for
the lawsuit from hell."
Greene County had its jail decertified on
Sept. 12 because of overcrowding. That day, an inmate who had his skull
caved in by another inmate sued the county, saying chronic
overcrowding led to unconstitutionally dangerous conditions at the jail.
The inmate was staying with 80 prisoners in a section of the jail meant for 32. He's seeking $3 million in damages.
Weighing the options
So what are the potential solutions to the problem? There are several possibilities, none of them easy.
• Potential solution: Build more jails or prisons. The problem here is money. The recession put serious limitations on both the state and local governments' budgets.
counties experienced budget cuts, making the idea of financing a $20
million to $50 million jail an impossible sell when employees are being
laid off and services eliminated.
"The public is just astonished
we have to add onto the county jail," said Franklin County Sheriff Tim
Fuller at a Dec. 5 Tennessee Corrections Institute meeting. "The coffee
shops will crucify you for wanting to add on."
• Potential solution: Let inmates out.
It's unlikely sheriffs have the legal authority to simply fling the
doors to the jail open and let out, say, minor misdemeanor inmates.
likely, it would require judges to set lower bonds or to find
alternative ways, such as GPS monitors, to keep tabs on people awaiting
But there's little motivation for sheriffs and judges to
take the political risks associated with letting more inmates out, said
"Some of the judges are saying they're definitely not going
to accept putting them out with a bracelet," he said. "When they get
out and hurt somebody or kill somebody, they're responsible."
• Potential solution: Alternative sentencing.
This is the option Schofield is banking on to lessen the burden in the
state's prison and jail system, but one that will take time - if it
works at all.
"The real question is, how do we manage that
population without building resources throughout the state?" Schofield
said. "They do it by impacting community supervision. That was our
selling point. That's how you've got to do it, on the front end."
said the state needs to increase alternative forms of sentencing, such
as the use of drug courts, which focus on treating addiction as opposed
to locking addicts up.
He said the state should also increase its
reliance on community supervision for nonviolent offenders, where
offenders avoid prison and jail but are closely supervised by local
But he acknowledged that there is little confidence that community supervision can keep the public safe.
had one judge tell me he hadn't used a community corrections program in
13 years because he didn't think it would work," Schofield said. "Part
of our job is to rebuild that confidence."
Not just statistics
There's one other problem: What if the sheriffs get what they want?
what happened over the last two weeks in Bedford County. After years of
overcrowding and complaints that they were housing too many of the
state's prisoners, the state started pulling those inmates out.
Along with the $37 per day that Boyce's agency received for housing them.
Now the county stands to lose up to $2 million in funding.
a way, I'm glad to see them out. We have to fret and worry about them
and take care of them in an overcrowded situation," he said. "But I
don't know if it's going to put more burden on my taxpayers."
Gonzalez, a Nashville attorney who handles inmate civil rights cases,
said the problem would best be fixed by revamping the state's bail
"I had a client who sat in jail for two years because he
couldn't afford a $200 bail. He didn't have $200 to his name," Gonzalez
"How much did that cost taxpayers to house him for two years?"
The answer: $32,725.90, using state estimates.
Andrews, the Putnam County sheriff, said people need to realize that overcrowding isn't simply about statistics and dollars.
are people in jail who are not criminals. There are people in jail who
make mistakes and you have to protect them," Andrews said. "Everybody
wants to hang everybody in the public square. Unless they're family. You
may not know who's in jail, but some day may come when it's your
relative, your friend, your neighbor."
Kylene James, who is one of Andrews' inmates sleeping on the floor, isn't holding out much hope for sympathy from the public.
Arrested for the first time in her life on a forgery charge, she found herself sleeping on the floor, crammed between bunk beds.
She said the experience was horrible, but she doesn't expect the public's sympathy.
"They don't really care what happens to us here," she said.