Overcrowding at the Hamblen County Jail has been an issue for several years, with the facility at double capacity at times.
Residents in Morristown are voicing their concerns after seeing firsthand what conditions are like inside. Standing outside of the jail with signs in hand, Kaylie Meiglinger wants answers about her brother’s death.
Jeremy Meidlinger was an inmate at the jail when he was taken to the hospital over the weekend, where officials say he later died. According to the coroner’s preliminary report, the 31-year-old Morristown man died from natural causes.
“As the family feel like I’m entitled to some information,” said Kaylie Meidlinger. “My brother was said to have died because he was in poor health. If that’s the case, it still falls on them. They are required if they have him confined, to provide the medical care necessary to keep him alive and they were incapable of doing that.”
Meidlinger is frustrated because conditions in the jail have been a problem for years.
“He was put into a pod with violent offenders just like everybody else is. There’s no filter system. So everybody gets filtered through the same way. It is ridiculous. The overcrowding,” said Meidlinger.
Sheriff Esco Jarnigan of Hamblen County says this jail is over capacity with people sleeping on the floor.
“We’re trying to keep the jail clean but it’s difficult to keep a cell block clean when you’ve got six beds and you’ve got 35 inmates in there,” said Jarnigan.
The jail can house 255 inmates. Recently, a record was set with 474 men and women incarcerated.
Sheriff Jarnigan says the decision to build a new jail lies in the hands of Hamblen County commissioners.
Jarnigan adds, “It’s time that someone that step forward that controls the money and address this issue instead of kicking the can down the road.”
Jarnigan says the jail has not met state requirements for years. When he was elected as the sheriff in 2006, he voiced his concerns about overcrowding. Since then, the situation has only worsened.
Mold, mildew and poor ventilation are issues inside the partially underground building. It was built in the 1970s and it was not equipped to handle the number of inmates currently behind bars.
Meliah Reece spent a year in the jail and she says she saw firsthand how bad things are.
“Just because you commit a crime, it doesn’t mean that they should treat you inhumane like an animal. Animals get treated better than these inmates do and it’s sickening,” said Reece.
The sheriff says more space is desperately needed, but prevention is also a way to combat the overcrowding situation, with many offenders in jail because of drugs.
Kaylie Meidlinger hopes changes come soon.
“We’re going to make sure that they hear our voices and our concern because this is our family, these are our friends and they deserve to live,” said Meidlinger.
Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain says he’s presented three options to commission to help with the problem. Brittain notes that seven of 14 commissioners begin a new term next month. He’s hoping the new commissioners will take the options up at some point.