A case against Hamblen County by the state Fire Marshal’s Office that resulted in a warning has been resolved, County Mayor Bill Brittain said Tuesday.
“The complaint has been closed,” Brittain said. “We passed our daily inspection.”
Brittain’s comments came during a Jail Study Committee meeting held Tuesday evening at the Hamblen County Courthouse where county commissioners were updated on progress of building a new jail and took action on several items, including working toward acquiring land around the area of the justice center and Hamblen County Courthouse.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office had opened a case against the county after an inspection in November revealed inmates lying on the ground blocking fire exits.
Brittain said in 2019 the average daily population was around 435 inmates. He said on Jan. 20, the jail reported the numbers at 380 inmates and Tuesday’s population was at 376 inmates.
“We’re down considerably from our daily average in 2019,” Brittain said.
He said Capt. Teresa Laws, who heads the jail, was instrumental in being able to work with judges and others to help make that happen.
Brittain also told the committee that the county should have agreements by next Thursday to acquire the Wilder property and the Morristown-Hamblen Emergency Management property on the block between North Jackson and Alison streets. The acquisition of those properties would expand the justice center’s footprint past Alison Street.
Brittain said the county is negotiating a land swap with Hamblen County EMS.
The committee voted 14-0 to allow Brittain to pursue negotiations in acquiring the properties and to add the items to next Thursday’s meeting of the full County Commission.
Brittain also informed commissioners the county is pursuing building plans across the street from the Hamblen County Courthouse, which is the Hale property. That property lies between 2nd, 3rd, North Jackson and North Church streets.
The property currently has 100 parking spaces that could be used for the courthouse.
Brittain said the county has plans to acquire the property and build an additional 75 parking spaces, a maintenance building and a storage building that would also include two to three offices.
Before that happens, though, he said the county would need to draft architectural plans for the design.
The committee voted 14-0 to allow Brittain to move ahead with design.
In an information filled meeting, Moseley Architects, the North Carolina-based firm handling the design of the jail, also gave some updates on the building and asked for feedback from committee members on design elements of the jail.
Those items included whether to have a work release dormitory, whether to have gravity-based or vacuum-based waste system and what type of generator system to have in case of emergency to power the new building.
The committee voted 14-0 to have a gravity-based waste system after hearing about the vacuum-based system and feeling it may be too costly and too complicated for county workers.
Committee members also agreed unanimously on a limited generator system powered by natural gas, instead of a system that would power the whole building during power outages. The limited system was around $500,000 compared to $1.6 million to power the whole building.
Most of the talk centered around whether to add a work-release dormitory in the potential new jail.
Bryan Payne, project manager for Moseley Architects, told committee members there is space on the third floor in the designs to add what would end up being around 30 beds for work-release prisoners. With the addition of the dormitory, it would increase the total beds of the jail to 616, he said.
Laws told the committee that a work-release dormitory would help keep contraband out of the jail, since it separates the prisoners who interact with the public from those who do not.
“It’s really important,” she said.
She said, though, right now they are averaging 30 to 40 work-release inmates.
Commissioners asked if the number of beds could be increased in the dormitory and Payne said they could put bunk beds in the dormitory, doubling the size.
Brittain also said he envisioned turning the current workhouse at the justice center into an area for a men’s jail transition program, much like the program Helen Ross McNabb Center runs in partnership with the county that helps female inmates.
The committee approved 13-1 going with a work-release dormitory in the designs. Commissioner Jeff Akard voted no.
Lastly, Brittain informed the commission that a jail staffing study is underway by Jim Hart, a jail consultant with County Technical Assistance Services.
He said Hart is gathering information and will continue gathering information throughout March.
Brittain said he expects to come back with a completed staffing study by April.