published Monday, June 20th, 2011

New prison’s effect on Bledsoe courts unclear

It’s been the routine so long that Bledsoe County Clerk and Master Greg Forgey says he doesn’t even think about it anymore.

The 971 inmates at the Southeastern Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility produce dozens of court filings every year in the county’s Chancery and Circuit courts.

The new Bledsoe County Correctional Complex going up next door to the existing prison will add 1,444 inmates to the county when it’s finished in 2012, but officials say it’s not clear how much impact the influx will have on local courts’ caseloads.

Courts have handled the state prisoner caseload since the existing prison opened in 1980, and court officials compare notes, Forgey said.

“I’ve talked to other clerks in other counties where they have state prisons. We share ideas. We’re pretty much doing the same thing,” said Forgey, Chancery Court clerk and master for the last 20 years.

Forgey, who said he hadn’t yet considered the new prison’s impact on caseloads, said most state prisoner-based cases are handled for free and take considerable time.

“The biggest problem is that they cannot come to court, so these cases have to be heard without oral argument,” he said. “So we just have to review the records in chambers and try to rule on them in that manner.”

New Circuit Court Clerk Michael Walker, elected last August, said he hadn’t thought about the impact of nearly 1,500 new inmates at the prison, but he predicts it probably will be “significant.”

Walker said Circuit Court gets cases from the prison and Taft Youth Center, a juvenile facility. Since Walker has held the post, the youth center has produced more cases, he said.

Walker said filings from adult inmates range from divorce to habeas corpus, the court writ calling for an investigation of the legality of an inmate’s incarceration.

The number of state prisoners’ cases waxes and wanes, he said.

“There’ll be a month go by that we don’t have anything, but then we’ll have a month that we have 10,” he said.

Walker and Forgey said Bledsoe courts have handled prison cases so long, no one even thinks about how much work is done without compensation.

“They’re all on the pauper’s oath,” Walker said.

The typical fee for a writ of habeas corpus is $112.50 and for a divorce as much as $184.50. Most other fees fall within that range, he said.

Officials say they’ll wait to see what happens to caseloads when the new prison opens.

“I don’t know that there’s any way of knowing,” Walker said. “That’s about all we can do is see how it plays out and just go from there.”

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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