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Knox County sheriff highlights jail overcrowding problem

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler spent Wednesday making it clear to county leaders that the detention facilities here are busting at the seams. 

When the Roger D. Wilson jail was originally built, it held 676 inmates. Today, it's at 111 percent capacity with 1,155 inmates. 

Capt. Purvis with the jail says the detention centers need more space and also more mental health support form the community to potentially curb the number of mentally ill inmates being incarcerated for a lack of treatment. 

He says his staff are some of the most experienced and trained on drug addiction in Tennessee because of how frequently they're dealing with the opioid crisis in jails. Purvis also says his correctional officers have a tough job, as they work in a place "filled with people who have committed crimes or have little respect for authority," and often work for much less than others in law enforcement. 

Spangler says overcrowding is a problem impacting most jails in the state. He said they doubled the amount of beds in the jail by installing more bunk beds. He says by doubling the number of beds, he had to also double shifts for some correctional officer. That, he says, was wearing them out, causing some to quit their jobs. 

"We do need to expand and that's what we're talking about is expanding and adding onto our facilities. How quick does that need to happen? I think that's something that may not be as soon as tomorrow but it is something that needs to happen. We need to at least be talking about it," Spangler added. 

Capt. Buhl with the Knox County Sheriff's Office fears if something isn't done, the Wilson facility could face a federal lawsuit due to it's overcrowding, leading to a cap of inmates. If the jail fails to meet the cap, it would face a daily penalty. 

He also hopes county leaders take stock of the issues facing corrections in Knox County. Buhl showed the media around the holding area where inmates are held before their classified minimum, medium, or maximum inmates. There were 98 inmates in the area on Wednesday and it was built for 72. That mix of violent offenders to trespassers is a safety concern, he says.

"I hope that they take away that there is an issue pending that the citizens of Knox County are going to have to deal with. It's inevitable that this is going to function the way that it is," Spangler added. 

Buhl doesn't attribute the growing jail population to a growing crime problem, but to a growing county.

"We have people moving in. We want a thriving economy in Knox County, don't you? As farms as selling and people are buying them up and you're building more houses and industry is coming in, creating job, and you have more people, with more people keep in mind more things happen," he said. 

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