published Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Bledsoe County goes high-tech with new $7.4 million jail

  • photo
    Prisoners sit in the common area of one of the cell blocks in the new Bledsoe County Detention Center in Pikeville, Tenn. Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — Digital readouts and sophisticated communications and observation equipment at the new Bledsoe County Detention Center are a far cry from the battered 1800s-era lockup it replaced.

The four-year road to the new $7.4 million jail came to an end in January when inmates moved from the old slammer on Frazier Street to the 96-bed detention center on the other side of Pikeville. The new jail had 43 inmates as of March 15.

“It’s like going through a portal from the past to the present,” said inmate Anthony Martin. He did part of his nine-month sentence for burglary in the old jail and was among the first to move in to the new facility on Allen P. Deakins Road in the local industrial park.

And it’s “more like a jail here,” Martin said with a smile and shake of his head.

Inmates aren’t free to spend their time socializing like they did in the old jail.

“It’s more of a rehabilitation here,” Martin said. “It’s no resort. Here, you don’t want to come back.”

Now it’s a matter of making the costs even out.

The county raised property taxes two years ago to help pay for construction and hired more than a dozen employees for the larger facility.

County Mayor Bobby Collier said officials will try to balance those additional costs against a $35-per-day fee collected from other counties for holding their inmates.

Right now the jail has two dozen out-of-county inmates and officials have a target of 40 to 50, he said recently.

Early wrangling

THE STORY SO FAR

* January 2007: County begins jail study

* May 2007: Old jail closed under state order

* June 2007: County hires architect Mark Rodgers

* July 2007: Project schedule set

* October 2007: Surveys begin

* February 2008: Old jail temporarily reopened

* August 2008: Jail bids double estimates; site work begins

* September 2008: Architect Rodgers withdraws from project

* January 2009: County files suit against architect

* February 2009: County hires TWH Architects, picks new design

* June 2009: 150 bidders submit bids

* July 2009: Construction begins

* November/December 2009: Building roof completed

* January 2011: Bledsoe County Detention Center opens

County leaders started planning a new jail early in 2007, a few months before a visit from state fire officials led to the shutdown of the county’s mid-1800s-era facility. Inmates were housed in other counties while officials wrangled over designs and costs for a new building.

The original target was a $5 million facility, but the submitted price tag for the design under then-architect Mark Rodgers was almost double that.

Rodgers withdrew from the project, citing a “hostile environment,” and the county sued for breach of contract. The court ruling gave the county back more than $100,000 of the $250,000 it paid to Rodgers.

In the end, Bledsoe officials borrowed the blueprints for Sequatchie County’s jail, which were drawn by TWH Architects. The finished jail in Bledsoe is almost identical to the Sequatchie County Justice Center that opened in 2006.

Bledsoe County Commission and Jail Committee Chairman Craig Mercer called the January opening of the new detention center “a relief.”

“We’ve got a really good design, and it was a couple of million dollars cheaper” than some of the ideas offered, he said.

Paying for it

BY THE NUMBERS

* 72: Beds for men

* 24: Beds for women

* 5: Jail staffing per shift

* $7.4 million: Final construction cost

Source: Bledsoe County government

The county financed the $7.4 million project through bonds that partially were funded with a 28-cent property tax increase in 2009, officials said. The property tax rate now stands at $1.8608 per $100 of assessed value.

Revenue generated by housing other counties’ prisoners will be used to offset the added operational costs.

Based on University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service estimates, the jail’s target of 40 to 50 out-of-county prisoners could bring in $511,000 to $638,000 a year, Collier said.

The number of out-of-county prisoners is expected to decline over the years as Bledsoe’s local inmate population grows, he said.

Officials said they’ll have a better handle on revenues and expenses in the coming months.

Recently, the jail’s population included 18 Bledsoe prisoners and 24 from other counties, officials said.

Jail Administrator Paula Peters said most of the out-of-county inmates were from Grundy County and some of the others were part of a swap with Van Buren County.

Grundy leaders are planning fixes for their own aging jail while keeping inmate numbers in check, Peters said. Van Buren, which also is working on jail problems, is keeping some of Bledsoe’s female inmates while Bledsoe keeps a few of Van Buren’s men, she said.

Bledsoe officials want to work out any kinks before they start housing women.

Chief Deputy Gary Johnson said officials can choose which prisoners they accept from other counties. That won’t be the case if they decide to house state inmates, he said.

Now the targets are prisoners who will not misbehave, he said. The inmates’ home counties are responsible for medical expenses.

Johnson said he believes the new jail will allow county leaders to focus on other issues.

“If we can get as much life out of this one as they did the last one, I don’t know whose lifetime the next one will be built in,” he said.

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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