With a huge percentage of crimes in Tennessee now stemming from drug addiction, some county officials are realizing they can’t just keep adding jail beds. Instead, they’re looking to address the root causes of crime.
That’s what’s happening in Blount County, a community of about 130,000 people nestled against the Great Smoky Mountains and part of the Knoxville metropolitan area.
The Blount County Jail, located in Maryville, has been consistently in excess of capacity for at least a decade. On July 31, it held 585 inmates in a facility certified for 350, one of the largest overages in the state.
Staff run the jail like a well-oiled machine, but the severe overcrowding creates operational challenges and safety risks on a daily basis. There’s barely enough floor space for inmates to sleep, let alone provide adequate space for programs.
The county has considered expanding the jail for years. But now, a broad coalition of community leaders wants the new jail to help reduce recidivism and change the lives of those in addiction’s grip.
“Everybody involved knew our jail was overcrowded,” says Charles Sterling, project manager for the Blount County Community Justice Initiative.
“But the more we learned, the more we studied, the more we began to analyze data trends, the more we realized we don’t really have a jail overcrowding problem. We have a criminal behavior problem that’s rooted in substance misuse, mental health issues and recidivism.”
The Community Justice Initiative includes a broad range of community leaders, from the mayor to law enforcement, the district attorney, public defenders, addiction recovery professionals, the local judiciary, corrections staff and probation officers.
In July, the CJI published a feasibility study that proposed jail renovation and expansion based on a projected need of 967 beds by 2040. However, about a quarter of those beds would be in a proposed Transition Center designed to help people move from incarceration into the community with the support and skills they need to succeed.
The CJI worked with Knoxville-based architectural and engineering firm Michael Brady Inc., which has designed numerous correctional facilities around the state, to design the project.
The Transition Center would include a secure fenced-in area with about 229 beds in minimum security dormitory-style housing arranged around open courtyards to encourage outdoor recreation and socialization. There would be ample space for education and treatment programs and support facilities like a kitchen and dining hall.
“Think of it as almost a very hardened little private school,” explains Jay Henderlight, principal and architect with MBI Inc., the firm working on the project.
“A transition center is something for folks that are looking for help or need special help. Most of the day they’re going through some kind of regimented type of program, and if they are not in class they’re cleaning their dorm or having to do some kind of task.
“It will be something that is a little more normalized; they’ll get more daylight and more access to the outside in a controlled environment. So it’s helping these folks to learn life skills along with addressing their drug dependency and mental health. To break recidivism is the goal.”
The area outside the fence would house non-secure departments that serve the public and offenders in non-custody supervision and treatment programs. Those departments include classes, drug recovery and veterans’ courts, county probation offices and recovery support.
To conceptualize the new campus, the CJI team researched best practices from around the country and made site visits to places like the Rutherford County Correctional Work Center.
That program, which currently serves about 155 inmates, provides structured educational, vocational, substance abuse and work release opportunities to better transition inmates back into the community as productive citizens. Inmates serve on a Community Service Work Crew that saves the city and county about $150,000 per month in labor costs.
Another site visit was made to Nashville’s DC4, a long-term residential drug and alcohol treatment facility that was one of the first residential drug court programs in the country.
Henderlight’s voice catches with emotion as he describes the visit to DC4, where he listened to the stories of women who had fallen into addiction and crime.
“Some of them came out of a family where all they knew was drugs. At a young age all they knew was a domineering man who maybe prostituted them to get drugs,” he recounts.
“They’re 20 years old – the age of my daughter who is just getting her life started – and they’ve already had a life that most people will never experience. A lot of them just want an opportunity but their lifestyle is not allowing them to have one.”
Forward-thinking projects like Blount County’s proposed Transition Center are a way to give those people a chance at redemption, he adds.
“Some of these folks coming out of jail didn’t grow up in a very good situation. They have poor life skills and they really don’t know how to make a life,” Henderlight says.
“Some don’t know how to keep a job. They may have lost their license so they can’t get to a job; there’s all kinds of problems. But that all leads towards the Transition Center, and the Transition Center is basically a way to give these folks a leg up to help them be better.
“Realistically, it’s not going to work for everyone but for the folks that can, I think it’s worth doing. Every life you save is a good life.”
Sterling has the same passion for the work. A retired civil engineer, he says he could be spending his days on more leisurely pursuits. But the opportunity to change the trajectory of lives and improve the community is too compelling. So is the level of support.
Sterling says he believes that is because few people have been left untouched by the drug crisis that has ravaged the state – and East Tennessee especially.
“When I speak to people one on one or when I’ve made a presentation, I have not encountered anyone that hasn’t been impacted somehow by substance misuse or mental health issues,” he recalls.
“More often than not I hear a very tragic situation and the individual that’s talking to me is just at a loss as to how to help.
“So our focus is, how do we in government align ourselves with everybody inside and outside of government that can and will help? How do we impact people so they can come back and re-enter the community at some point as better people, as productive people, better parents, better children, siblings, employees?”
With so many hours of research and planning behind it, the Community Justice Initiative will soon learn if the project can move forward. Blount County has just elected a new slate of county commissioners who have not yet seen the design plan. Henderlight hopes to start designing within a couple of months.
“Everyone should have a chance to redeem themselves, to become a useful part of the community. Blount County has been a breath of fresh air in that they really have bought into that,” he says.
“It took a lot of work but they did come to the consensus that they want to do something other than just expand the jail and lock them up, which I applaud them for.’’