published Monday, February 18th, 2013

Tennessee bill would ban more items from prison

NASHVILLE — Smuggling or possessing tobacco and tattoo-making equipment at a state prison or local jail would be a crime under legislation introduced by two Hamilton County lawmakers.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, updates and adds to the list of items deemed contraband under state law. The legislation applies not only to prisoners but everyone coming into the facility.

Carter said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, a member of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association's legislative committee, brought the bill to the lawmakers.

An attorney and former judge, Carter said he can see the need for the legislation and is happy to sponsor it.

"Cigarettes are the currency for corruption in jails," said Carter, also a one-time top assistant to former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey.

Hammond said current law needs updating to cover emerging problems.

"We stopped smoking a long time ago," Hammond said. Prisoners are prohibited from using tobacco products in prisons and jails. "But you still get it as contraband. This will not only assist us in dealing with the prisoners but in the event -- and I'm not saying it has happened anytime lately -- we had an officer who was slipping it into the jail."

Hammond said the "biggest issue for us lately is the tattoo stuff, homemade tattoo equipment where you sit around and tattoo everybody from A to Z."

Tattoo equipment is problematic on several fronts, Hammond said, from gang-related body art to public health dangers.

"Some of it's infections that it causes, especially when you're in a closed environment like that and they're not using sterilized equipment," Hammond said. "They try to make [tattoo needles] out of paperclips and anything they can find sharp. Then you get people with infected arms or legs or wherever they're putting it."

The bill makes smuggling or possessing tobacco products a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years in prison, depending on the defendant's prior criminal record.

Penalties for smuggling or possessing tattooing equipment were unclear under the Sheriffs' Association-drafted bill. So were penalties for prohibited items like lighters, matches and "any object or instrument capable of producing fire."

Tennessee Sheriffs' Association Executive Director Terry Ashe and an administrative assistant did not return telephone calls Friday seeking clarification.

The bill includes a ban on "any object or instrument intended or reasonably likely to be used in the planning or aiding in an escape from a penal institution."

That's a Class B felony punishable by eight to 30 years in prison upon conviction.

The bill also fine-tunes existing law that already bans telecommunications equipment such as cellular devices as well as weapons, ammunition, explosives, intoxicants, legend drugs or any controlled substances or controlled substance "analogues."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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