Commission moves quickly on new jail addition following task force report

Blount County Commission

Last week, the Blount County Commission voted, following discussion in executive session, to proceed with building a 72-bed addition to the Blount County Correctional Facility to house low-risk inmates, appointing District 2 Commissioner Mike Painter as project manager for planning and construction.

This week, Painter and others met with Lathan Associates, architects for the project, for an initial planning meeting. Takeaways from the preliminary meeting are as follows. The expected size of the building is 6,500 square feet. The expected start time is as soon as reasonably possible this year. The anticipated completion time is within one year. The estimated cost – emphasized as very preliminary – is in the $500,000 to $1 million range, with county crews contributing to the work on an in-house basis wherever possible.

“The architect has been instructed to build this building as quickly and as economically as possible,” Painter said.

The new facility will be used to introduce a public work-release program along with other rehabilitative programs to prepare inmates to lead productive and successful lives when they are released.

The stimulus for the commission initiative was a report delivered by a special task force assigned seven months ago by the commission to conduct a thorough study of needs at the chronically overcrowded jail. The report’s specific findings and recommendations are detailed below.

Findings

• The Blount County jail needs more space, including more beds and common areas.

• Inmates, staff, and citizens of the county will benefit from additional programs that can be provided at the jail, including educational and vocational programs, a work-release program, addiction and domestic violence counseling, and spiritual guidance. Such programs will enhance inmates’ prospects for successful rehabilitation and re-entry into the world outside the jail.

• Such programs are impossible without adequate classroom and office space to conduct and administer them.

• The court system, sheriff’s office, and the correctional staff have made reasonable efforts to manage the inmate population and to maintain the safety of the community.

Recommendations

• Immediately construct a 72-bed dormitory style facility for low-risk inmates. Build it adjacent to the existing jail to take advantage of the existing intake area, as well as the existing food, laundry, and medical services areas.

• A minimum of four correction officers should serve in the new facility.

• Use a risk-assessment interview such as the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS) evaluation tool. This assessment could be used to manage the health and safety of the inmates and staff. Additionally, a risk assessment, conducted by trained and qualified personnel, would be useful for bed assignment and program placement of inmates.

• Introduce rehabilitative programming for inmates including a public work-release program for appropriate inmates, educational and vocational programs, addiction and domestic violence counseling, and spiritual programs. The programs would work with local providers to facilitate transition to the community after release.

• Establish an ongoing task force to review jail programs, population, and conditions. Have it report its findings to the sheriff, circuit judge, and county commission annually, and work to further develop a 10-year plan for construction of a new jail or expansion of the existing one to accommodate needs anticipated for the next 25 to 30 years.

Process

The task force met ten times beginning in late February through early September. Individual members reported to the task force on current jail conditions and population, jail management in adjoining counties, with data on sizes of jails throughout the state, and information on work-release programs. The group evaluated an architectural drawing for a building for 80 plus inmates, then commissioned architects to produce a revised and slightly smaller proposed building addition for the jail.

Members

The task force was composed of 16 members, all distinguished administrators and leaders in Blount County. It contained five judges, the sheriff, the district attorney, the jail administrator, an inmate support expert, the county attorney, a defense attorney, a county commissioner, the county administrator, the community corrections director, a state probation officer, and the director of Hope House.

Authority

The task force was established by the Blount County Commission on Feb. 12, 2018, and charged to conduct a thorough study and make recommendations concerning the Blount County jail.