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Hamblen County Sheriff fears jail could face closure over 'serious crisis' of overcrowding

The sheriff said the State Fire Marshal has given the jail until the first week of January to resolve serious overcrowding issues.

The Hamblen County Sheriff said the county is facing a serious crisis over jail overcrowding that he fears could lead the state to force the jail to close.

Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnagin said he has raised concerns for years to the mayor and county commissioners about dangerous levels of overcrowding at the jail, which remains a chronic issue many counties across the state continue to face. 

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On Tuesday, the sheriff said overcrowding has reached a critical level -- to the point the State Fire Marshal has advised the county to reduce the jail population by the start of January 2020. The sheriff said he fears if that request is not met, the state may soon issue a notice that would force a jail closure. 

"The governing body was warned for over 13 years that the serious and dangerous jail problems had to be addressed immediately, but I was ignored," he said. "Team HCSD will continue to work tirelessly to help solve this problem. Other jails placed on "notice" contracted inmates out to surrounding jails."

If the jail were to close, the county could be forced to pay as much as $60 per day per inmate to secure them elsewhere. 

In the meantime, the sheriff said he's worked to find ways to reduce inmate sentences through work programs.

"The Judges have done all they can to assist in reducing our staggering number of inmates. We requested the state to find housing for their inmates. We continue to give inmates 2 for 1 days when they work. Example: 6 months sentence can be shorten to 3 months if they work," he said. "We will continue to do the best we can with what we have." 

The sheriff is asking for more county funding to go toward resolving the issue as soon as possible -- saying millions of dollars had been generated through the county corrections program, but those funds went back into the General Fund instead of being used to address issues at the jail. 

Currently, there are only 255 beds at the jail -- but lately houses more than 400 inmates and has peaked near 475 inmates. The sheriff has called it an unsafe situation, saying the poor conditions have led to inmates starting assaults over flaring tempers. 

Earlier in the year, a county committee voted in favor of building a new 500-bed jail on two acres of land to alleviate the current overcrowding issues, but the sheriff still worries the proposed location would lack space for future expansions if the inmate population continues to grow. 

At the time he said there was no firm date to finish the new jail, but he asked the county to hold off on formally approving that proposed site before they go any further.

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