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Blount County working to battle opioid epidemic in county jail

With a new focus on rehabilitation, Blount County staff propose establishing a new transitional facility.

Blount County leaders are working on a new approach to cut the number of inmates in the county jail.

They've battled overcrowding for years. When the jail opened in 1999, it was certified for 350 beds.

Last year, the average daily inmate population was 524.

Cutting down on inmates isn't just a numbers game anymore.

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell said most inmates are victims of the opioid epidemic.

That's something jail workers notice, too.

"To me, 10 years ago the mindset was, well, we're housing," said Al North, an adult education instructor who works with inmates in the jail. "But today, I don't think they question that the correctional staff is really concerned about rehabilitation."

Over the decade he's worked there, North has noticed a change in inmates with the spread of the opioid epidemic.

"They're no different than just an ordinary citizen dealing with the same issues."

Blount County leaders created the Community Justice Initiative in 2017 to tackle the issue of jail overcrowding.

Project manager Charles Sterling said it didn't take long before they realized the source of the problem.

"No matter what they're in jail for there's almost always drug misuse or mental illness issues at the root of it," said Sterling.

With a new focus on rehabilitation, Blount County staff proposed establishing a new "transitional facility."

The new facility would still be a jail, but one that works to help inmates battle addiction and eventually transition into society.

"We can put those life skills back in to drug free people," said Mitchell. "They're going to be great citizens."

Nothing is set in stone just yet.

Mitchell said a proposal would need commission's approval first, and that could involve a tax increase.

"It will be in their hands to either make it or break it," said Mitchell.

The concept is still years away from opening its doors but Mitchell is hoping the county will be on board.

"I mean, aren't we supposed to be our brother's keeper? And I think we have to reach out and we have to help them," said Mitchell.

Staff hopes to have that proposal on a county commission agenda in the next few months.