MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (WATE) – Fire concerns are at the center of an East Tennessee jail and the problem is coming down to overcrowding, according to officials.
Now, county leaders are working to address those concerns by bringing down the number of inmates.
A Facebook post by Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnigan caught our attention Tuesday night. Sheriff Jarnigan shared about a recent meeting with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and what he’s doing to solve the problem the state says needs to be fixed.
Hamblen County leaders say the efforts stem from a complaint filed with the state.
The problem boils down to overcrowding, which is resulting in exits and entrances being blocked by inmates. The state says that’s a fire hazard.
As of Wednesday of this week, the Hamblen County Jail’s population is just above 400 inmates — but it’s a 255-bed facility.
“We don’t have any control over the population of the jail. You break the law, you come to jail, the sheriff’s responsibility is to house the inmates of the county,” Jarnigan said.
Jarnigan said he’s making every inmate fit “by the grace of God.”
The state says overcrowding is creating a potentially hazardous and life-threatening situation for inmates and jail staff if there was a fire, which is why changes need to happen.
“I am so disappointed in the establishment for not addressing this problem 13-years ago because now we’re in a crisis, serious and dangerous situation,” Jarnigan said.
Hamblen County leaders say they’re working to solve the problem by contracting inmates out to other jails, giving jail credit when appropriate, using electronic monitoring devices for child support violators and creating a new system for low-level offenders, among many other solutions.
“They don’t want us to sit on our hands. They want us to make progress to reduce our numbers and that’s what we’re doing,” Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said.
Hamblen County Commissioners have approved moving on the second phase of design for a new justice center that will have 650 beds for inmates, as well as three courtrooms and offices.
“So, we’re moving steadily on it. If we broke ground today it would be two years but we’ll probably break ground next summer,” Brittain said.
He says short-term and long-term solutions are in motion, “We’ve studied it thoroughly. We know what the answer is and we’re heading down that road.”
If the numbers don’t drop by Jan. 4, there could be what’s called a Commissioner’s Order issued from the state.
County leaders say that’s a worst-case scenario and an order would mean the jail’s population would have to be at 255, which is what it’s certified for. However, the state says there is no order at this time.
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