Rhea County Jail overcrowded, leaders eye new location

News Channel 9's Alana LaFlore takes us on an inside look at Rhea County's Jail Overcrowding (NewsChannel9.com)

RHEA COUNTY, Tenn. — According to the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department, the Rhea County Jail is at more than double its capacity.

A viewer emailed NewsChannel 9 with concerns about overcrowding at the jail. We brought those worries to the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department and the County Executive, who both said it’s a safety issue for inmates and staff – and a new jail could solve the problem.

Inside the Rhea County Jail, there’s so many people that inmates have to roll out mattresses and sleep on the floor and in closets.

“We treat people like animals and then we expect them to get out and actually act like somebody,” said Joshua Thomas, who wrote to NewsChannel 9 about the jail.

The Rhea County Sheriff’s Department says the jail has 87 beds. But right now there are 210 prisoners. In the women’s cell block there are 12 beds and 52 inmates.

“If you’re 137 people over, we’re understaffed,” said Detective Rocky Potter with the Rhea County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s hard to keep people’s anger in check when you have 25-30 people in a cell that will sleep eight.”

According to Potter, overcrowding has almost always been an issue, but in the last few years more crime means it’s gotten worse.

“Methamphetamine use, pills – it doesn’t take long before we’re gonna reach the maximum number,” said Potter.

Potter says the jail is so packed, they’ve lowered bonds before – and released inmates.

“We don’t let anybody go for any heinous crimes or felonies,” said Potter. “If they have minor misdemeanors we have sometimes let them go on an ROR.”

The State Fire Marshal’s Office required the county to come up with a plan to fix the overcrowding. A few years ago, Rhea County Executive George Thacker says the County Commission started putting aside money to build a new jail.

It would hold about 300 prisoners. But after years of setting aside money, nothing has happened yet.

“We need to get this done in the next two weeks, said George Thacker, Rhea County Executive. “What location we’re going to pick, and then we’ll start moving forward.”

Thacker says he met with Rhea County Sheriff Michael Neal and the jail’s recently hired project manager on Friday. He says one of two possible locations is the old hospital on 27 North.

They’ve completed a study of the property and have plans drawn up. There is not a construction timeline yet. Once the new jail is built, Thacker says the Tennessee Department of Corrections will pay the county to house some of its state prisoners.

But Joshua Thomas says he doesn’t think a new jail will solve the problem, and says if the jail focuses on rehabilitation, there will be less recidivism.

“Society has turned their back on them,” said Thomas. “And then we expect them to do better when we return. Something has to change. We have to change how we do things.”

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