Nearly all the Claiborne County meetings this summer have had their share of heated moments, with temperatures rising inside to meet those outside. The latest Claiborne Jail Committee meeting was no exception. A vocal scuffle broke between county resident Joe Brooks, Claiborne Sheriff David Ray and chief deputy Wayne Lee near the end of the meeting, prompting committee chairman Steve Mason to call an adjournment.
Mason was heard saying that it is “enough of this fussing. I’ve heard it until I’m sick.”
Apparently Brooks attended the recent Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) control board meeting, which netted the decertification of the Claiborne County Jail. He seemed to take exception to the way in which Lee handled the request for continued jail certification.
“His (Lee) remarks were incendiary. They were not ‘hat in hand’…. We were the only county out of about two and a half dozen counties that appeared yesterday, that were decertified,” said Brooks.
“I went down there to deliver a message that this county commission instructed us to make. I’m sorry if my tone doesn’t please you,” said Lee.
Brooks claimed Lee told the control board the county did not want to pay for the new security locks for the jail.
Lee vehemently denied the statement, adding that the proposed county budget does not currently include funds to cover the locks.
Brooks said he remained at the control board meeting to see how the process played out for other counties. While there, Brooks said he talked with deputy director Bob Bass.
According to Brooks, Bass is willing to return to Claiborne County in an effort to get the jail recertified and to “right” the Claiborne Corrections Partnership Act committee.
“He (Bass) said this (jail committee) shouldn’t be made up of five individuals who were ‘yes’ folks. He said ideally, in other counties, those things are made up of community members, lay people citizens, business and entrepreneur folks and maybe one or two county commissioners. Most of those are not paid positions, but some counties give them $35 for their time and trouble to come in,” said Brooks, adding that Bass told him the committee should exist as an educational tool between TCI and the public.
As for dissolving the jail committee, Brooks said Bass recommended not doing so. During its August meeting, the Claiborne County Commission tied its vote, effectively halting the passage of a resolution calling for the dissolution of the jail committee. At that time commissioner Whitt Shuford, who sponsored the resolution, said he would bring an amended one to the September commission meeting.
Ray said he wanted to address the reason why he did not speak during the TCI control board meeting. He said recent eye surgery has made it impossible for him to read anything or to see well enough to recognize people.
“I’ve addressed that board every time we’ve been down there. It’s not that I was afraid to,” said Ray.
He reminded those present that the county was the first one to join the Corrections Partnership.
“We were the first jail to be put on the plan of action and probation. We sent our minutes to these people for two years. You’re acting as though we haven’t begged them to help us. Bob Bass has been sitting right here. Members of that board that you did not talk to, apparently, have been here,” said Ray.
He refuted the rumor that he and Lee were attempting to get the jail decertified as a way to ‘get back’ at the county residents for voting down the jail expansion bond referendum.
“You’re now trying to say we (Ray and Lee) took that message – because it was our idea that failed. We carried the message. We delivered it. And, we left there. Now, this jail is decertified, and it will be for a year if they go by what they normally do – before it’s inspected again,” said Ray.
Brooks said he simply wanted to prove the point that Ray and Lee did not try to convince the control board to extend certification of the jail.
“That’s your one opinion,” said Lee.
He then asked an audience member, sitting beside Brooks, why the man had been quiet during the meeting. Lee asked the audience member if he held the same opinion as Brooks.
The debate turned nasty when the man said “why don’t you shut up” to Lee, who responded with “why don’t you make me shut up.”
Earlier in the meeting, Lee updated the committee on the TCI control board findings. He said the board voted to decertify the jail “to send a message to the Claiborne County Commission.”
“He (the control board member who made the motion to decertify the jail) further had in his motion that decertification was at no fault to the sheriff or his chief deputy,” said Lee.
Prison officials, Lee said, recently requested a list of all state inmates currently housed in the Claiborne Jail.
“The federal is a little different. Because of our intergovernmental agreement, they have 120 days to remove their federal prisoners,” said Lee, adding ten to 15 of those already sentenced could be leaving the next day.
After adjournment, Brooks said he was very disappointed in the way in which the request for continued certification of the jail was handled in Nashville.
“I feel like if they had had a better relationship with Claiborne County through this whole thing, we would be in a better spot than where we are, and certified today. I think if David Ray had taken charge, like he should have, and gotten rid of some of these prisoners that it would have been a benefit when they went before the (TCI) board yesterday,” said Brooks.
Following the jail committee meeting, Mason said it is unlikely the expansion project will be discussed anytime soon. The main thrust, he said, will be getting the new security locks in place and performing other repairs to the Claiborne Jail.
Fallout from the decertification includes the loss of the trustee program, in its current state – a program that has alleviated a labor cost burden to the county of some $2 million per year. In particular, the Claiborne Animal Shelter and the county litter pickup program will be greatly affected by the loss of qualifying state prisoners.
Ray did say the trustee program could be kept alive, on a much smaller scale, by utilizing those local inmates incarcerated for less than a year, who are trustworthy and disease-free.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.