KNOX COUNTY — After touring the Knox County jail with Sheriff Tom Spangler, county commissioners who were present at the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility Wednesday reacted to the sheriff's desire to expand the jail.
The jail is over capacity by more than 115 people as the Knox County Sheriff's Office faces challenges stemming from the overcrowding.
The facility was built to hold 1,036 people. On Wednesday morning, 1,155 were incarcerated at the jail.
"We do need to expand and that’s what we’re talking about, expanding and adding on to our facility," said Sheriff Tom Spangler. "How quick does that need to happen? It may not be something as immediate as tomorrow but it's something in our near future."
Five of the eleven commissioners joined Sheriff Spangler and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs at the lunch and tour on Wednesday.
10News asked commissioners who toured the facility if they support the expansion of the jail, if anything struck them as surprising about the conditions of the jail on their tour, and whether the commission will take up the issue in the coming weeks and months.
"I've seen firsthand the overcrowding situation continue to grow. It's very troubling to me as a Commissioner and a resident of Knox County," said Commissioner Larsen Jay, who represents one of the at-large seats. "I've also spent time with Sheriff Spangler and do feel this is a real problem that's been ignored for far too long that must be addressed in a timely manner."
Jay went on to say that the problem must be addressed with a "multi-pronged approach."
"We may need to physically expand certain areas of the detention facility, but in my opinion, we also need to work with the Knox Co. District Attorney, Judges and Public Defender to examine our court systems while also considering innovative ways to process inmates," said Jay. "One example would be to institute a 'virtual courtroom' where arraignments could be completed in a timely manner which would reduce transportation costs, overcrowded cells and time in the detention facility."
The potential implementation of a "virtual courtroom" system was also raised by Commissioner John Schoonmaker, who represents the 5th District.
"I had no idea that we were transporting that may inmates to the Knox County Courts every day. We are spending a lot of tax dollars in transportation costs," said Schoonmaker. "We need to look at some type of video court where the inmate can go to a video studio at the Detention Facility and have a video conference or hearing with our County Judges."
Sheriff Spangler said Wednesday that 80% of the jails around the state are at 100% capacity. The jail population in Knox County is growing at a rate of 8% every year. Some of the factors contributing to the increase are the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis.
"The reason our jail is so overcrowded is directly related to the opiate crisis. Until this problem is solved, no amount of jail expansion will suffice. This is obviously a long-term problem and will require long-term solutions," said Commissioner Michelle Carringer, who represents the 2nd District and is the Vice Chairman of the Commission. "As a county, state, and nation, we are all going to have to work together in creative ways to address the epidemic of opiate addiction that is the root cause of our jail problem."
Commissioners say they learned a lot on the tour that will help them make a more informed decision when it comes time to take up the issue.
"I learned a lot about the corrections side of the Sheriff’s Office," said Commissioner Justin Biggs, who holds one of the two at-large seats. "I will do my due diligence to make sure that I have researched every aspect of jail expansion and its estimated cost to tax payers."
According to Commissioner Schoonmaker, Sheriff Tom Spangler will be giving a 30 minute presentation on the overcrowding issue to the County Commission - Finance Committee on Monday, Oct. 15 at 3:30pm in the Main Assembly Room.