Lockdowns put county at risk

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Last Wednesday morning, there were 1,209 inmates under Knox County’s jurisdiction – 188 in the downtown jail, 929 in the Roger Wilson Detention Center on Maloneyville Road and 92 on work release, according to a report the sheriff’s office is required to compile. Another six inmates were “on loan” to other counties where they have legal issues.

Inmates in the Maloneyville facility often are locked down in their cells 23 hours a day, not because of bad behavior, but because of understaffing. Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones and his staff did not respond to requests for information for this story.

On Friday, Oct. 28, Hugh Holt resigned his job as Knox County purchasing director. The sheriff’s office had no such position until Monday, Oct. 31, when Jones announced that he had hired Holt to be the sheriff’s office’s procurement director at an annual salary of $137,000.

Jailers hire in at a starting salary of $30,812.86. This means Jones could hire four correctional officers for the same money the newly created purchasing director will be making.

Why does overcrowding put Knox County at risk?

In 1986, pre-trial detainee Wayne Dillard Carver (he hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime) filed a pro se suit against Knox County alleging inhumane conditions caused by jail crowding. Sheriff Joe Fowler and Gov. Ned McWherter were also named as defendants. Carver’s complaint was found to have merit, and a magistrate appointed attorney John Eldridge to represent him in federal court.

The trial was in August 1988, and the following January, Judge James Jarvis ruled that conditions in the Knox County Jail were unconstitutional. In the course of time, he appointed attorney Charles C. “Chuck” Burks as special master to act as a liaison between the federal court and Knox County.

Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong reports that the case is still alive.

“We’re still under the Carver case ruling and we still have a special master over efforts to curb overcrowding at the Knox County Jail.”

Burks, who has served in that position for more than a decade, says: “It’s a work in progress. We report to federal court periodically, and federal court tends to let communities address these issues. We like that because it does make us accountable.”

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling says, in part, that the district court should (emphasis added): “first analyze local conditions in terms of food, ventilation, condition of cells and holding areas, medical care, acts of violence, sanitation, ratio of guards to inmates, and eating arrangements, and other similar practices and circumstances and then fashion a remedy for the ‘uniquely local’ practices and circumstances causing any unconstitutional violations found to exist.”

Lockdown because of understaffing seems to violate this ruling.

A veteran criminal defense attorney says the sheriff’s office doesn’t care about staff shortages in the jail. “They don’t care, not because they think you’re too stupid to dig deeper, but because they think people won’t care what you find out.”

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