Exercise room on convict’s wish list

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By Damon Lawrence

Convicted crack cocaine dealer Ralph O’Neal is trying to take on the role of jail rights activist.

O’Neal, who is being held at the jail awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge, sent a letter to the Roane County Commission and County Executive Ron Woody requesting funds for the construction of an exercise room at the county jail.

“This exercise room with some workout material could easily help curb some addiction,” he wrote. “If it helps a small percentage it would be well worth it.”

The Roane County Sheriff’s Office operates the jail. Chief Deputy Tim Phillips said Tennessee Corrections Institute standards do not require exercise materials for inmates.

“We have to meet what’s called the minimum standards, and there’s nothing that says anything about weight equipment or exercise equipment,” Phillips said.

“I’d say it’s unlikely the commission will go and spend a bunch of money on exercise equipment that’s not needed, but that’s completely up to them.”

O’Neal references Phillips and Sheriff Jack Stockton in his letter to the commission.

“Sheriff Stockton and Chief Phillips are known to champion the rights of inmates, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the orderly running of the facility,” O’Neal wrote.

Phillips said it would be nice to have an exercise room for sheriff’s office staff, but he and Stockton are not advocating that the county build one for inmates.

“Any time you do anything with government, that burden gets pushed off on the taxpayers,” Phillips said. “I’m not sure the taxpayers would want to provide a workout facility for inmates.”

The sheriff’s office does provide use of an exercise yard for inmates. That can be problematic.

Earlier this year, the commission appropriated $20,000 in county litigation tax revenue to fix a hole in the exercise yard fence.

Stockton said some inmates made the hole because they were plotting an escape.

“TCI says there’s supposed to be a recreation yard, but it doesn’t say anything about exercise equipment,” Phillips said.

O’Neal said he currently works out in his housing pod.

“Sometimes others join in,” he wrote. “I show a lot of the guys, whom mostly are addicts, that exercise and diet can change their perception on their lives and habits.”

Phillips said it’s not uncommon to see inmates working out.

“You see a lot of them doing push-ups and sit-ups and things like that,” he said.

Phillips said they caution inmates about doing things that are unsafe.

“If they’re trying to do pull-ups off the stairwell and they fall and get injured, we’re responsible, so we have to keep an eye on things like that,” he said.

Prior to his incarceration, O’Neal was regarded as a big-time drug dealer in Roane County by law enforcement.

His downfall started in March 2008, when he sold $2,850 worth of crack to a confidential informant at a car wash in Midtown.

In December 2009 a federal jury found O’Neal guilty of 11 counts. He was sentenced to life in federal prison as a result.

O’Neal is in custody at the Roane County Jail awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge surrounding the 2007 killing of Ronnie Dean Cofer.

He once sought to have the murder charge dismissed because the foreman on the grand jury that indicted him is white. O’Neal is black.