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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio hails himself as America’s toughest sheriff.
Arpaio’s Tent City, an outdoor jail in the deserts of Phoenix that houses inmates under rows of tents surrounded by razor-wire fencing, is nationally known.
With inmate counts up and the costs of jails soaring, could a similar situation work in Tennessee?
Some lawmen have been tempted by the prospect.
“I’ve heard about him,” said Jefferson County Sheriff David Davenport, president of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. “I’m sure there’s been more than one sheriff here think about it.”
Among them is Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton.
“I checked with the state corrections institute and the jail supervisor said that the climate is not suitable in the state of Tennessee,” Stockton said. “It’s too cold in the winter and it’s too hot in the summer.”
Sheriffs aren’t the only ones who have considered the Tent City option.
Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley said he looked into erecting a makeshift jail after a neighboring county told him they would no longer accept prisoners from his county.
“The fire marshal tells us that in Tennessee we cannot do that,” Ridley said.
The Tennessee Corrections Institute also has a set of minimum standards for local correctional facilities. The standards require that inmates be housed in a temperature of not less than 65 degrees and no more than 80 degrees.
“To me, room temperature for inmate housing is OK, but you can go overboard with these rules and regulations, too,” Stockton said.
Jail building is big business in Tennessee. According to a County Technical Assistance Service report, 15 counties spent a combined $165 million on jail projects over a three-year span.
Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, found an unconventional way to deal with jail overcrowding 15 years ago. Lisa Allen, media relations director for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said Arpaio didn’t want to let inmates out of jail for lack of space.
He used inmate labor to construct Tent City, on a site where summertime temperatures routinely hit triple digits and massive dust storms and monsoons blow through.
Arpaio has been both celebrated and condemned for his treatment of the prisoners.
Allen said Tent City includes a day room that has showers and toilets. There’s also meeting space in the day room for inmates to congregate and play cards.
Maricopa County officials are so confident about security and the lawfulness of Tent City that they even offer group tours.
“That sounds all well and good,” Davenport said. “I just don’t think our courts here would let us get away with it because of the weather swings we have here and so many other variables.”
Even though it’s helped make Arpaio famous, some Tennessee sheriffs don’t seem interested in the media attention that a tent jail would bring.
“I wouldn’t want a civil lawsuit over violating somebody’s civil rights, so you kind of have to stay within the bounds of what the state mandates,” Stockton said.
The other way to fix overcrowding is building bigger and newer facilities.
Roane County is in the process of building a $10 million jail.
Ridley said Bledsoe County plans to spend $5 million for a new jail. The old Bledsoe jail was built in 1859 for a capacity of nine prisoners.
For small counties like Bledsoe and Roane, spending that kind of money on jails is a large financial burden.
“It’s disturbing to know that you’ve got to spend anything to incarcerate the public when you’ve got needs as far as education and highways, but it is a fact that local government is responsible,” Ridley said. “I think the general public understands we don’t have a choice. We’ve got to provide proper housing to incarcerate inmates.”
And while Tent City is for inmates who have already been tried and convicted, most of the people serving time in county jails in Tennessee are pretrial felony prisoners, according to CTAS reports.
When the Roane County Jail was recommended for decertification after a TCI inspection in October of last year, 50 of the 98 people incarcerated that day were pretrial inmates.
“That’s a big issue,” said Stockton, whose jail was decertified by TCI in December. “A lot of the people who are incarcerated are awaiting a trial.”
Cash-strapped counties could consider pooling their resources and look at building regional jails.
For example, four or five nearby counties with jail overcrowding could build a centrally located facility. Costs could be shared.
Davenport said he likes the idea, but he also recognizes the difficulties of the regional concept.
“Trying to get four or five county governments to agree on anything is very difficult,” Davenport said.
Another problem with the regional idea is counties looking at TCI decertification don’t have time to wait until political wrangling gets worked out.
“We have such a high number of inmates that we’ve had to build jails or be accused of overcrowding or accused of having insufficient conditions,” said David Seivers, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association. “When you get that label, you have to build to not be in violation of the law.”
“There is a cost to protect justice and society and that’s part of it,” Seivers said. “It cost a lot of money, and it’s the responsibility of the county government to have a jail.”