Cheatham County’s Jail Within the Jail

ASHLAND CITY, TENNESSEE- For jail administrator J.J. Hannah, solving the overcrowding problem in the Cheatham County jail isn’t just about making inmates more comfortable, it’s about giving them basic human decency, he said.

The statistics tell one side of the story. There are 116 beds in the jail but an average of 180 inmates. On weekends, there are sometimes over 200 inmates. The rate of those who return to jail is about 75 to 80 percent.

While these help depict the mounting overcrowding issue, there are also the realities behind those numbers. For instance, space this limited means heightened security risks, greater chance of altercations between inmates, more stress for employees and more difficulty in hiring new staff, Hannah said during a recent tour of the jail for a Cheatham County Exchange reporter and photographer.

Hannah has worked in the jail for 18 years, becoming the top administrator about five years ago. He has made changes to keep the jail as secure as possible, but there’s only so much that can be done for that facility. Hannah doesn’t want to spend money on a new jail, but he believes it’s a necessity, he said.

“We’re not looking for crystal chandeliers and golden door knobs, we’re looking for enough room for inmates to have basic human decency,” Hannah said.

For the inmates who don’t get a bed, they’re either given a plastic boat, which simply separates a mattress from the ground or, if they run out of those, just a mattress on the floor.

On a day in September, one inmate pod had 13 people in a room with only eight beds, leaving five people to sleep in the plastic boats or mattresses on the floor. In another pod, one of the beds on the floor was just a couple feet from a toilet.

“Pretend like it’s your kid in here,” Hannah said.

There are plans for a new jail, but some members of the community have expressed they don’t understand why the county should allot money to accommodate inmates. It’s not just the inmates who are suffering though, Hannah said.

“We’re stuck in here too,” he said, referring to jail employees.

The jail has struggled to hold on to staff because of the conditions of the facility, he said.

“The payment we get and the overcrowding and the stuff they expect us to deal with, it’s extremely hard to get people hired,” Hannah said. “When you do hire them they may stay for a week and decide it’s not for them.”

Garth Knox, who monitors cameras, controls door locks and answers the dorm intercoms, has worked in the Cheatham facility for less than a month, he said. With about 12 years of correctional facility experience before his job in Cheatham, he’s noticed a few major differences in this jail.

“Generally the only time I’ve seen boats used is temporary,” he said.

He has exclusively seen the plastic equipment used when there is a sudden influx of inmates because of a mass arrest event, he said. He also noticed fewer bathroom and hygiene facilities for the amount of people in the jail, he said.

The overcrowding also means his job is more demanding.

“More bodies, more wants,” he said.

Where is the overcrowding the worst?

The area the staff experiences overcrowding the most is in the booking area, Hannah said.

That section of the jail has four cells. Two of them are about 10 feet by 10 feet and the other two are about eight feet by eight feet.

Those cells, designed just for inmates who are entering the jail, are also used as a holding area for inmates on suicide watch, in need of medical attention or as a disciplinary measure for those who were fighting, Hannah said.

The 10 by 10 rooms can have up to nine or 10 people in them and the 8 by 8 rooms can have up to four or five, he said. There is also extremely limited storage space in the jail, so the booking area partially takes that job also. Extra mattresses and blankets lay on the floor.

That area, along with the rest of the jail, needs to be about three times bigger, Hannah said.

The employee who works in booking must keep an eye on all of those inmates, answer phone calls and manage the locks on doors for that part of the jail. Ideally, the jail would have six or seven employees working at all times, but with sometimes as few as four people on duty, they all must fill in for each other and do whatever job is required, Hannah said.

“It’s extremely stressful,” he said.

A couple of employees working on an average Wednesday morning said they absolutely hope a new jail is built soon.

Set inmates up for success

One benefit Hannah hopes for in a new jail is a space for programs that could help inmates get secure jobs once they leave, he said. In the current jail, there is a small room where they hold Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and some church services.

“It’s a closet more or less,” Hannah said about the space. “Right now, we’re basically warehousing people and when they get out they’re not better than when they came in here. (They’re) probably a little worse because they’re in here with other people who give them ideas.”

Hannah would like to see programs that take inmates to and from a job so that when they leave jail, they have every opportunity to maintain their freedom.

“(This would) set them up for success rather than set them up for failure,” he said.

Who are these inmates?

All of the people staying in the jail were arrested in Cheatham County by either the sheriff’s department, a police agency, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or even the FBI. Their charges vary greatly, with most being non-sentenced felons. The least serious charges are for non-violent offenses like failure to appear in court or failure to pay child support, Hannah said. The most serious charges are murder and rape.

With so many of the same people coming in and out of the jail, Hannah gets the chance to know some of the inmates, he said.

One thing almost all of them have in common is that their crimes can be traced back to drug addiction, Hannah said. Many inmates have become addicted to opiods, often starting with a legal prescription for painkillers and then moving to a cheaper but equally powerful alternative: heroin.

Then begins the cycle of arrests for breaking parole or other crimes that feed their addiction, he said.

“It’s like the devil has them by the arm,” Hannah said.

What’s next for a new jail?

Mayor Kerry McCarver began researching three adjacent lots where a new jail could be built after he gained approval at the Aug. 20 county commission meeting. It’s not just the inmates and employees who think Cheatham County needs a new jail, the state of Tennessee has threatened to decertify the county’s jail if the overcrowding issue is not solved soon, he said.

If that were to happen, Cheatham County would be open to lawsuits from inmates, McCarver said. After relocating inmates to certified jails, the county would be paying more than $2.5 million to house 180 inmates per year, he said.

“Rather than waste all that money to support jails surrounding Cheatham County, we must keep moving ahead to find our own solutions and invest in our own long-term solutions,” he said.

The property McCarver is investigating is across from the current jail and takes up the block from Sycamore Street to Ruth Drive, McCarver said. It has been valued at $650,000 and the commission will consider putting up an offer of $750,000 at the Oct. 15 meeting, he said.

After acquiring a property for the new jail, companies that design correctional facilities will present their proposals to the county commission. It could take up to three years to open the new facility, McCarver said. For Hannah, the particulars of the new facility aren’t important.

“I don’t care where they build it as long as they build more beds,” Hannah said.

What keeps Hannah working in the jail is the idea that he can help some of these inmates, he said.

“Not everybody that gets put in jail is bad,” he said. “We’re all human beings, we all make mistakes.”

By: Elliot Wenzler

Published: October 9, 2018


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