Anyone who is imprisoned knows that conditions will not be like a country club or Buckingham Palace.
But some residents feel their loved ones who have been incarcerated in the Blount County Detention Facility recently should be able to serve their time in a better atmosphere.
The husband of Maryville resident Danielle Hubbard spent some brief time in the facility after being charged with contempt of court. He had to share a small cell with three other inmates and was relegated to sleeping on the floor.
“He had to sleep on the floor with nothing to cover up with,” Hubbard said. “It’s not sanitary. He said it was horrible. I understand there’s people that need to be there, but there are people on contempt (of court charges) that came in. It’s so bad that people need to let (officials) know or find them a better facility.”
Many residents like Hubbard who have had loved ones, friends or acquaintances serve time in the facility have been flooding the Sheriff’s Office with calls and messages, expressing their concerns about the conditions of the jail, and overcrowding in particular.
Some inmates have been sleeping on mats on concrete floors if there are no beds available, and some, like Hubbard described, have slept on the floor with no mat, pillow or blanket.
The jail, which opened in 1999, was built to house 350 inmates, but as of Thursday has about 515. Officials described the situation as “10 pounds of flour in a five-pound bag.”
As of Thursday, out of those 515 inmates, officials said about 190 of them are accused of felonies and are waiting to go to trial.
There were 76 accused of misdemeanor offenses and are still waiting to go to court, 45 sentenced felons who have been court-ordered to serve less than two years in the facility, and 50 serving time on misdemeanor offenses ranging from 48 hours to nearly a year.
There are also 90 federal inmates and 86 from the Tennessee Department of Corrections who are still waiting for beds.
‘Train off track’
Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said during an interview with The Daily Times that the jail started experiencing jail overcrowding problems during the 1990s.
“We were sued by a number of inmates, but a federal judge came in to control this facility and we relieved that liability,” Berrong said. “They did a needs assessment back in 1994, based on what the county would need in terms of population. When we first got here, we had a lot of space and we rented some out to the U.S. Marshals Service.”
Berrong said the jail has had decent revenue in the last 10 years, but he and other officials approached the Blount County Commission 3½ years ago, and let them know that “the train was coming off the track.”
“We were experiencing overcrowding and had to do something,” Berrong said. “We took out some of the marshals’ prisoners, and that cost us $3,000-$4,000 a year. During that time, it was a low number and we had enough revenue, but since then it’s gotten way out of hand.”
‘Cruel and inhumane’
Knoxville resident Joann D’Onofrio, whose son spent a brief time in the facility, said he told her there were inmates sleeping in the hallway, and several fights broke out.
“It’s cruel and inhumane treatment as far as I’m concerned,” D’Onofrio said. “(The inmates) are supposed to get raises (more privileges) twice a week. They (officers) don’t care about them — they hung up on me at the jail.”
D’Onofrio and Hubbard were among many who complained that they were told inmates have suffered from skin conditions such as scabies, and even developed hepatitis from being confined to multiple inmates in a small cell. “My son was there for almost two months, and they never gave him medicine for his skin,” D’Onofrio said. “He knew to put in for the doctor to provide itch medicine, but they don’t care. (My son) needed to be in jail, but don’t treat them like dogs. It’s inhumane.”
“In every single cell, all of them were coughing,” Hubbard said. “The cells are small, and with four people in there when you (go to the bathroom), it splashes all over everybody. I know it’s not the Holiday Inn, but that’s not adequate care.”
Berrong said while he admits the jail has many issues, it will be a slow process in order to make improvements.
‘Nothing to hide’
“We have nothing to hide,” Berrong said. “We send the mayor the jail’s population periodically and what we’re averaging. I don’t have the purse strings — all I can do is run the physical plant assigned to me in this 13-year-old facility.
“We are experiencing some complaints, and some of them are valid. Whenever you have that many people in this confined space, you’re going to have issues. We are staffed for 350 inmates, so we have concerns internally.
“We do have cots,” Berrong continued. “I can’t say that no one has ever slept on the floor with just a blanket, but we just got some new cots in.”
“Whenever you run a facility like this, you’re going to have some health problems,” added Chief Deputy Ron Dunn. “I haven’t heard of that recently, but it’s common to have those things.”
“Our philosophy is we can only do things we can control,” Berrong said. “They’re used to having television, newspapers, sodas and cigarettes ... that creates some issues among people that live here. This is jail. The word in the corrections community is you don’t want to go to Blount County.”
Tour of facility
Lt. Keith Gregory, one of the facility’s corrections officers, gave a tour to The Daily Times and showed first-hand inmate living conditions, some of which would not make most people comfortable.
“There are few complaints as far as being overcrowded,” Gregory said. “They (inmates) all pretty much get along. These guys back here in this pod (pointing), they’re not going to complain. They have more room to roam and get on the phone any time they want, but they have to have money on their account to use it.”
Gregory said that the inmates are classified from being trustworthy enough to work inside the prison to being placed in solitary confinement, where they sit in their cells 23 hours a day and are allowed one hour of recreation time in a confined area.
“Our circuit court is so backed up that when you hear a case or two a week, it’s hard to make that number (of inmates) go back down,” Gregory said. “These guys that can’t afford to make bond are having to sit back here for a long time. That number keeps growing.
“Prisons in other counties are in the same shape we’re in,” Gregory continued. “They don’t have the room, either. It’s easier for them to pay to house them here and try to stack them up. We get 10 prison beds every two months. It seems like for every 10 we send, 10 get sentenced and they’re waiting for a prison bed. You can ask any of these guys and they would rather do time in another county, because there are things that can make the time go by a lot quicker.”
Prison Grievances: when to write, how to write, offers both entertainment and education. In this section of the blog, I'll offer you pieces of the book so you can understand what all the tooting and rooting are about. It's a good book. 10/4/12. You can't write a grievance without understanding the Prison Litigation Reform Act. It requires, for instance, that you must first talk over your problem with a prison officer BEFORE you write the grievance (except in cases of injury or fear of death). That way, the officer has an opportunity to correct the problem before you take it to the Grievance Committee. 10/9/12. If the talk doesn't take care of your problem,then you MUST write a grievance. In Texas, that's a Step 1. In the federal prisons, the counselor will give you a BP 9. Answer all the questions. Be as specific as you can. Do NOT include legal jargon. 11/1/12. Make only one claim per grievance. 11/5/12. Do not repeat the grievance before the listed time is up. If it is an emergency, then go ahead! Otherwise, give the system time to respond. 11/14/12. If your problem is not resolved, and you see a flaw in the answer, then you can file a second grievance--but only about the problem in the answer: the reader got the facts wrong, the answer did not match your problem, etc. Do not write a second grievance that repeats your initial complaint--it won't get you anywhere. 1/20/13. If you get no response at all to a grievance, even after the allowed extension, then file the Step 2 with an explanation about the missing response. No, really, the main office is not under the control of the unit bosses (or Martians), and they will actually read your grievance. 2/14/13. Yes, a form-response is frustrating. It is difficult to balance the requirement to 'be specific' with the requirement 'keep it short with no attachments.' So your game plan: always include who-did what-to whom-when. Then mention the number of witnesses, for instance, but offer to discuss those details.
INFORMATION Behind the Walls. Jorge Antonio Renaud (University of North Texas Press, 2002). Should be required reading for families who need information on the practical aspects of prison life. With 24 chapters on elements of prison life (living quarters, craft shop, discipline), the book provides a comprehensive overview with marvelous concrete detail. I found the Apendices especially useful (custody level, medical/dental, libraray, commissary, recreation, good time, parole, officials, and resources). Do you know the difference between GP and PC? You will when you buy and read this book. Special mention: many formerly incarcerated have written about prisons; most can't write. Mr. Renaud was a journalist before his missteps, and the book is a delightful, easy read.
GRAPHIC NOVELS sentences: the life of M.F. Grimm. author Percy Carey, artist Ronald Wimberly (DC Comics, 2007). 5 Star, champagne flight best ever. The decline and fall of a former Sesame Street star is just as compelling as the edgy, unusual art. Although this book chronicles the life, the second life, the fall, and the eventual redemption of a rapper, prison conditions are always front and center. Would-be, wanna-bees need to read this graphic novel. If it doesn't spell out the consequences of fast money and bad decisions, then nothing will.
MEMOIRS Prisoner of Conscience: a memoir. Kenneth Kennon (XLibris, 2001). Could there be a more inlikely inmate than a Christian minister who was arrested for silently marching against the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia? Rev. Kennon intended to protest; he did not intend to go to federal prison for 6 months. This almost-daily log of impressions, insight, and poetry can help families understand the long, long days, the daily insults, the joy of receiving mail. Unexpected humor both in the prison and in Rev. Kennon's writing is especially endearing: a transportation guard asked him what a prisoner of "con-science" is; he had seen posters the Reverend's friends held up as he walked through the gates. Perhaps any word that begins "con" catches the eye?
This box will have reviews of some of my favorite books, movies and whatever else I might discover. Please send me your favorites, and I'll review them!