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Tennessee Jail Overcrowding is State's Fault

Tennessee is now spending over $100 million a year to house state prisoners in county jails - a 14% increase from the previous year. Despite 7,350 prison inmates being double-celled, state prisoners still overcrowd jails because the state has no room for them.

As of July 19, 1996, 2,056 felons were in jails waiting for prison beds to open up. Jails also held 3,409 people awaiting trial for felonies and 3,297 convicted felons with 1-6 year sentences that were sentenced to serve their time in county jail instead of prison.

The counties are paid by the state for the convicted felons in their jails, including those sentenced to do their time in the jails.

Nancy Menke, a top advisor to Governor Don Sundquist, doubts the cost of housing prisoners in jails has peaked, saying "it is hard for me to say that the cost of anything related to corrections will peak until we quit incarcerating felons."

Since 1986 seven new prisons have opened and the state has spent almost half a billion dollars on prison construction and expansions.

Two prisons, each to hold about 1,500 prisoners, are due to open within two years - one in 1997 and one in 1998 - and a prison that will hold about 2,600 prisoners is to open in two years in Lauderdale County. Scheduled expansions at three prisons will add 744 beds, and more double-celling at three other prisons will add space for 476 prisoners.

The chairman of the legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee, Senator Jim Kyle, said that by state prisoners being housed in jails it, in effect, constitutes a separate prison system and "it is a deterrent for someone to know if they misbehave they are going to be taken out of a jail at home where they can have visitors and see people and be sent to a state prison where they know their family can't get there."

Tougher and longer sentences sought by the public is going to cost. Taxpayers will have to continue to shell out more money to house prisoners.

Tennessee's prison population has already almost doubled in just 8 years and projections for future needs indicate that all of the newly created prison space still will not be enough. The projections say that the state will still need 3,000 more beds by 2004.

Rutherford County Sheriff Truman Jones blames the state for not acting faster in building prisons and says that "keeping state prisoners is a major problem." The Rutherford jail is at almost double its capacity of 108, with prisoners even being housed in what is supposed to be a recreation room.

According to Chuck Fisher, director of jail inspections for the Tennessee Corrections Institute, 24 jails have undergone major renovations and 24 new jails have been built, all since 1987.

The overcrowded jail situation is also hampering police operations. Stings and mass arrests have had to be modified or curtailed because of the lack of jail space.

Sgt. Melvin Brown of the Metro crime suppression unit said "the Police Department has the ability to make mass arrests using undercover officers ... and has done so successfully in the past, but cannot do what its capable of because of the lack of availability of adequate jail space to house offenders."

It is the DOC's goal to eliminate the backup of state prisoners in county jails. Whether they will be able to accomplish this goal is another matter.

Housing state prisoners in jails, even temporarily, risks dangers and lawsuits, as well as denies prisoners any significant rehabilitation or training.

Many rural counties don't have the manpower to handle a serious disruption in the jails, and its likely that overcrowded jails will cause the prisoners to start suing counties again over the conditions.

-The Tennessean

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