The Claiborne Commission appears to have chosen a plan of action, as the county moves forward to address continuing jail overcrowding.
By a vote of 12 to eight, the commissioners adopted a resolution last week that might satisfy those overseeing continuing certification of the Claiborne County Jail.
The commission spent a good deal of time debating on a few proposed amendments to the resolution, before adopting it in its original format.
As adopted, the resolution calls for Claiborne Sheriff David Ray to inform the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Control board that the county plans, as a way to alleviate jail overcrowding, to do away with the federal inmate contract, in its entirety, and to accept only half the state prisoners that the jail currently averages.
Before its passage, commissioner Bill Keck made a motion to amend the resolution so that only the federal inmate contract is terminated. Keck said he would also like to “strike” the portion that refers to the doing away of half the state prisoners.
He pointed to the ongoing jail trustee program, and its myriad functions that effectively save the county a substantial amount of expense. If not for that program and the qualifying state inmates who perform those duties in and around the Claiborne Justice Center, the county would be forced to hire minimum wage workers.
Keck estimated an average of 45 state prisoners incarcerated in the jail, once the number is reduced to half.
“Two or three months ago, you had 27 of them failed a drug test. So, you really couldn’t do a workhouse, anyway,” said Keck.
Commissioner William Jessie said he was concerned about losing the federal inmates.
“If you get rid of the federal prisoners, isn’t it kind of like if you run a motel, you throw out the paying guests? Eventually, the jail will be crowded back with the nonpaying prisoners in this local area. And, we’ll be once again facing overcrowding,” said Jessie.
Ray said the federal prisoners brought in $660,000 per year. The state inmates brought in about $101,000 last month. Total revenue generated through these two avenues last year, he said, was over $2 million.
It took some 18 months to certify the Claiborne County Jail. If decertified, it would take the same amount of time to recertify, said Ray.
“Who is going to train us? TCI certifies all our (jail) employees. I held a conference here, a school, to get all our people qualified to work. And now, we’re having in-service training and we’re having good people trained, as the law requires,” said Ray.
If federal prisoners had not been housed during the previous 13 months, Keck said the jail would not have been overcrowded.
Chairman David Mundy questioned the 85 percent rule, saying removal of just the federal inmates would not help the county bring the jail count to 85 percent capacity.
Ray said the statute, dating to 1985, was so that county jails could accommodate the usual influx of “weekenders.”
In today’s overcrowding status across the state, the rule is all but forgotten for the smaller counties, he said.
After a bit more discussion, the Keck amendment failed via a vote of 14 to six.
Commissioners Keck, Whitt Shuford, Charlton Vass, Gary Poore, Nicolas Epperson and Mitchell Cosby voted in favor of the amendment.
Another proposed amendment, made by commissioner Dan Longworth, failed by a vote of 18 to two. Longworth proposed earmarking excess inmate revenues.
“Just to take care of the jail, whatever happens to be next month, all revenue from July 1 and forward be used for that purpose – for repairs and (replacement of equipment)….because we’re not going to get revenue from federal and possibly half the state’s. We’ve got cars to replace. We’ve got to support it, somehow,” said Longworth.
Commissioner Mike Campbell said this particular amendment is a separate issue and should be addressed by the budget committee.
Because of the uncertainty of the exact revenues lost, commissioner Bill Johnson asked that the resolution be amended to state that it is a recommendation of the budget committee and is only a “first draft” of the plan of action.
Johnson said he and his fellow commissioners did not have the resolution ‘in hand’ to review until 6:28 p.m. that evening – moments before the beginning of the meeting.
The Johnson amendment apparently failed, due to a lack of a second to the motion.
Jessie then asked to amend the resolution to keep all the higher revenue-generating federal inmates and to do away with all state ones.
According to Ray, federal prisoners generate $47 per day, per inmate. State prisoners bring in $37.50 per inmate, per day.
“That jail has been a golden goose. That jail has brought $14 million into this county and has prevented the taxpayers from (having) their taxes raised. Now, who can dispute that,” said Ray.
County resident Joe Brooks said he could dispute the statement, which created a moment of contention between the two men and several attempts by the chairman to bring order back via his gavel.
“You have paid out $35 million to get $14 million back. The jail is not a golden goose,” said Brooks.
Once order was restored, the Jessie amendment was voted on and failed, by a vote of 12 to eight.
After more discussion, the commission adopted the original resolution, sponsored by commissioner Steve Mason. Those voting against its passage were commissioners Jessie, Longworth, Campbell, Juanita Honeycutt, Gary Poore, Ann Bowling, Nicholas Epperson and Anthony Rowe.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.