The fate of the Rhea County Jail now lies with the Tennessee Corrections Institute after Monday's follow-up inspection from the agency, but county officials expect the jail to be decertified.
Inspector Barry Suttles was at the jail Monday morning to see how county leaders have progressed in remedying the chronic overcrowding that has plagued the jail for years.
He will present his findings to the Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control on Dec. 1 in Nashville. The seven-member board, comprised of appointees from Gov. Phil Bredesen, will then decide whether or not to decertify the Rhea County Jail.
Rhea County Executive George Thacker and Sheriff Mike Neal will also be allowed to address the board.
Suttles inspected the jail in September and cited it for the overcrowding. He also visited the Rhea County Commission days later and instructed them they had 60 days to put together a plan of action detailing their progress on the matter.
According to Rhea County Chief Deputy John Argo, 111 inmates were in the jail at Monday's inspection. The jail's occupancy is 87.
Rhea County Commission Chair Ronnie Raper said he expects the jail will be decertified. But he said only so much could be done to correct the problem in the 60-day timeframe Suttles gave the county.
"We can't jump through hoops," Raper said. "I'm just being realistic."
Raper said even though state inspectors have addressed the county several times about the overcrowding issue, he and other county commissioners thought the problem could be solved by granting early releases to non-violent offenders.
"We weren't told we needed a new jail," Raper said.
Others, like Neal and Judge Jimmy McKenzie said at a meeting Friday this issue has been known about for years.
If the jail is decertified, it could affect the county's insurance rates. According to Thacker, all county properties are covered under on umbrella policy, so the jail issues could have a ripple effect.
According to TCI Assistant Administrator Peggy Sawyer, if the board decertifies the jail, the county's insurance carrier could decide to drop coverage completely or raise premiums so high the county couldn't afford the coverage.
And if the county has no insurance coverage, it is then liable should any lawsuits be filed against it - putting taxpayers on the line.
A specially-formed committee tasked with working toward a solution to the problem met Friday and authorized Thacker and Neal to scout sites for a new jail building or justice center - a building that would house a jail all Rhea County courts, court administrative offices and the sheriff's department.
Thacker said Monday, though, if the county can show state regulators it is making progress, state authorities will work with county leaders and their plans.
"But we need a long-term plan," Thacker said. "It's going to take a little while to solve this problem."
Officials said at Friday's meeting that they won't know the county's financial options for funding a new jail until the Tennessee Comptroller's Office approves the county's 2010-11 budget, approved locally in September.
Michael Reneau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org