Lincoln County Jail Must Expand to Stay Open

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FAYETTEVILLE, Tn. (WHNT)–In a meeting today Tennessee Detention Facilities Specialist Bob Bass described the Lincoln County Jail as being in a state of “crisis management”. For the past two years jail overcrowding has warranted inmate releases and transfers and has even stifled staff and administrators from doing their jobs.

It has been a battle between the state’s rules and the Lincoln County Commission’s budget restrictions that have kept sheriff Murray Blackwelder’s hands tied since March 2011.

Tuesday’s inspection report revealed however what was described as an “aggressive” campaign by jail administrators to do everything possible to temporality relieve population struggle within the facility.

“I feel like what I have done over the past two years has finally come to light, and been shown to be what i was actually doing this whole time, ” said Sheriff Blackwelder, “hopefully now we can get back to law enforcement instead of worrying about was it over our heads.”

Jail administrator Chris Thornton said over the past two years Lincoln County has sent inmates to prison, sent them to be housed in six other counties, tried an ankle bracelet release program and even instructed staff not to issue state warrants. As of October 31, the state had a backlog of 768 female inmates and 4,920 male inmates awaiting state penitentiary beds with over 9,000 pre-trial inmates in the Tennessee state system. But Sheriff Murray Blackwelder says that’s just the beginning of the stifling efforts taken to try to comply with state regulations and avoid federal litigation. Lincoln county has also worked with the circuit court and the district attorney’s office on alternative sentencing measures for misdemeanor offenders. Blackwedler says the transfer of inmates and the costs to house them elsewhere has caused the jail a projected loss of nearly $300,000 this fiscal year alone.

But Tuesday, it was made clear, plans to expand the jail on its current site is the only option to avoid using certification and even risking the facility shutting down for good. An architect presented to options for members of the County Corrections Partnership Committee. One option includes everything needed to bring the current facility up to date as well as additions that would increase capacity to 175 inmate beds. That plan also includes the creation of a courtroom that would transform the jail into a justice center. Sheriff Blackwelder says Tuesday finally felt like a breakthrough.

“I hope they fix the problem,” he says, “I don’t have a say in that matter, all I can tell them is what I feel like is needed here to fix the problem, they ultimately have the final say in how it’s fixed.”

The committee agreed to have the jail architect draw up an official contract to present to the full county commission at the next regularly scheduled meeting. A portion of a recently passed wheel tax has been earmarked to go toward the projected $5 million dollar hail expansion budget. The final expansion plans will be presented in another county corrections committee meeting Friday at 5:00pm.