McMinn jail escape highlight overcrowding, funding problems

McMinn jail escape highlight overcrowding, funding problems

September 9, 2006

By SONU WASU
6 News Reporter

ATHENS (WATE) -- The two inmates who escaped from the McMinn County Jail Friday are back in custody and under close watch, but problems persist at the jail.

No one noticed the men were gone until a patrol officer saw the jailer flashing his badge through a window and banging on it.

With the help of the U.S. Marshal's office the sheriff's department announced a $3000 reward for the capture of each inmate.

Officials say after the reward was broadcast, phone calls and tips started pouring into their office.

The men may be back in custody, but problems at the jail are not escaping Sheriff Steve Frisbie.

Overcrowding, short staffing and major technical problems, are still a reality there.

The computer system, considered the brain of the Justice Center, is still broken.

The system controls every door electronically. Now, jail guards are having to do things the old fashioned way. They're using keys to get around.

The 14-year old jail was built to house 196 inmates. The average population there is about 220. Inmates are sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Sheriff Frisbie says he only has 4-5 jailers working per shift to guard all these inmates.

He says he cannot operate a jail in these conditions.

The sheriff says the County Commission has ignored his pleas for help by not funding the department.

But County Mayor John Gentry argues that's not true. "The county did increase staffing 18 months ago. We added 6 additional staff."

Frisbie tells 6 News he had asked for 10 new officers. Six is not enough. "We're way overcrowded. Last week I sent 15 to our state prison system and I still request more prison space from the state."

County commissioners say the McMinn County Jail was built on an indirect supervision model. That means they spent more money up front on technology so they could spend less down the road to hire manpower.

Gentry says that's what the sheriff and commissioners at the time agreed on. "It was built with a lot of high tech stuff to do away with the need of so many staff members. Whether or not it's working, obviously it's something we'll have to look at more closely."

But now, that technology is not working. With the main control board "fried," the sheriff says he needs more manpower and does not have it.

Sheriff Frisbie says county commissioners were aware that the computer system had problems. He had asked for money to maintain the system, which had broken down several times in the past.

One commissioner said they gave the sheriff the option to update the system, or build a secure fence around the jail.

The sheriff chose to build a fence.

The hopeful news in all this is the justice center will be getting a new computer system.

Commissioners say they've already approved the funding to expand the building. They're adding two new courtrooms.

Once the expansion is complete they will replace the existing computer system with a new one. They will also look into hiring additional staff for the sheriff's department.

That could take a year. Commissioners say they are in the process of hiring an architect at this time.

In the meantime, the existing computer system will be repaired. Gentry says the county has already ordered replacement parts.

The system should be up and running within a week.

 

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