Pubdate: Sat, 14 Dec 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: Richard A. Oppel


MORRISTOWN, Tenn. - The Hamblen County Jail has been described as a
dangerously overcrowded "cesspool of a dungeon," with inmates sleeping
on mats in the hallways, lawyers forced to meet their clients in a
supply closet and the people inside subjected to "horrible conditions"
every day.

And that's the county sheriff talking.

Jail populations used to be concentrated in big cities. But since
2013, the number of people locked up in rural, conservative counties
such as Hamblen has skyrocketed, driven by the nation's drug crisis.

Like a lot of Appalachia, Morristown, Tenn., about an hour east of
Knoxville, has been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid use.
Residents who commit crimes to support their addiction pack the
255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates at the end of October, according
to the latest state data.

Many cities have invested in treatment options and diversion programs
to help drug users. But those alternatives aren't available in a lot
of small towns.

"In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic," said
Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of
Justice, which released a report on Friday analyzing jail populations.
"But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail."

The disparity has meant that while jail populations have dropped 18
percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in
rural areas during that same period, according to estimates in the
report from Vera, a nonprofit group that works to improve justice
systems. The estimates are drawn from a sample of data from about 850
counties across the country.

There are now about 167,000 inmates in urban jails and 184,000 in
rural ones, Vera said. Suburban jail populations have remained about
the same since 2013, while small and midsize cities saw a 7 percent

Rural jails now lock up people at a rate more than double that of
urban areas. And increasingly, those inmates are women. Hamblen County
officials said the number of female inmates in their jail has doubled
in the past decade.

Drug use isn't the only reason that some rural jails are packed. State
prisons sometimes pay counties with extra bed space to house inmates,
and so does the federal government. The number of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement detainees held in jails rose by about 4,300 from
2013 to 2017, Vera estimates.

Small towns also lag cities in efforts to reduce incarceration, such
as releasing nonviolent offenders without requiring them to pay hefty
bail amounts while awaiting their day in court.

The rural jail boom runs counter to a nationwide, largely bipartisan
push toward reducing incarceration, which has been embraced by
everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to President Trump's
son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Sentencing law revisions have led state and
federal prison populations to drop since 2009, following a four-decade

Many cities have seen the number of people in jails, which hold people
convicted of minor crimes or awaiting trial, plummet in similar
fashion. In Nashville, 200 miles west of Morristown, the inmate
population has fallen 28 percent since 2013, according to Vera. Other
cities with big declines include Buffalo, Chicago, New York City,
Oakland and Philadelphia.

But in places like Hamblen County, with a population of 65,000, the
system works differently. People get arrested on charges like
possession, shoplifting to pay for their addiction or failing a drug
test while on probation, and bail is set too high for many to afford.

Almost everyone in the county jail is there because of charges related
to addiction, said the sheriff, Esco Jarnagin.

Inside, many lose jobs and are further cut off from family and
friends. The odds of getting back on track on the outside dwindle, and
the cycle repeats.

Few know more about this cycle than Kim Coffey, who has worked in many
aspects of Hamblen County's criminal justice system - for a defense
lawyer, as a bail bondswoman and as a juvenile drug addiction counselor.

Now she is one of the sheriff's jailers. At work, she often sees her
daughter, who has spent much of the last decade in and out of jail
after getting hooked on pain pills following an injury.

"They were giving her hydros like they were Tic Tacs," Ms. Coffey
said, referring to hydrocodone, a powerful opioid that her 29-year-old
daughter took for more than a year. "Then they cut her off cold
turkey. Her back was still in pain, and she did what she felt she had
to do. You go to the next available thing. Now, it's meth."

Given the lack of options, Ms. Coffey said jail was sometimes the best
place for her daughter. "At least when she's here, I know she's alive.
I know she's not in a ditch somewhere."

Yet she wishes the county had more treatment options and job-training
programs that could help inmates like her daughter. "If we could help
people to finds jobs, then they wouldn't go back to drugs, because
otherwise you go back to what you know to make a living."

As she spoke, another guard shouted, "Hey, we got a fight!" Ms. Coffey
rushed off to help break up a brawl between female inmates, who now
account for a third of the jail's population.

Fights in the jail are a common occurrence, said a former sheriff's
deputy who is now serving time himself; he said he stole a commercial
lawn mower after getting hooked on pain pills following shoulder surgery.

"Tensions run high when you got 60 people in a 20-man pod," said the
former deputy, who asked that his name not be used because he feared
he could face retaliation.

One recent six-month stretch had more than 150 inmate-on-inmate
assaults, according to a judge's findings in an ongoing federal
lawsuit, which also said the jail suffered from "overcrowding,
insufficient security checks, inadequate staffing, difficulty with
properly classifying inmates, failure to provide information about
reporting sexual assault to inmates, and many incidents of
inmate-on-inmate assault."

Hamblen County officials have proposed a new justice center that would
include a jail twice the size of the current one, as well as new
courtrooms. But the $73 million price tag has drawn protests from some

Over the past six years, the county's annual jail expenses have risen
to $4.4 million from $2.6 million, said Bill Brittain, the county's
top administrator.

Defense lawyers have proposed other options to address the crisis,
including a pilot program for pretrial supervision similar to one in
nearby Knoxville and other cities. It would have allowed some low-risk
defendants to avoid having to post bail, and to avoid jail even if

But judges rejected the proposal because of fears that defendants
would flee, said Willie Santana, a former prosecutor in Knoxville who
is now one of four lawyers in the Hamblen County public defender's
office. "The whole system is geared toward generating pleas and
putting people in jail," he said.

For many inmates, that means the jail has been a revolving door. More
than three-quarters of the 850 new cases that Mr. Santana handled in
the past year involved a client who had previously been incarcerated
for something drug-related, he said.

Many small cities and rural areas haven't embraced efforts to make it
easier for nonviolent offenders to get on with their lives after
scrapes with the law. And even in rural areas that might favor more
treatment over incarceration, hospitals have shut down, limiting their

"You don't have any treatment options, or at least it seems to them
that they don't, so many judges and prosecutors feel that they have no
choice but to lock people up," said Pamela Metzger, director of the
Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU Dedman School of Law.

Despite the overcrowding in Hamblen County, the sheriff and some other
officials are skeptical that big-city solutions could work here.
Sheriff Jarnagin said he favors education and prevention over treatment.

"We can't cure them once they get on some of these drugs," he said.
"It's jail, or the graveyard."

Pretrial diversion, he added, would reduce jail numbers, but would
also mean criminals running loose. "They're going to commit a crime
and be right back in here on something else."

One ray of hope has been a jail-to-work program for female inmates,
administered by a local treatment facility. It takes just eight women
at a time, but of its 45 graduates over the past two years, only seven
have committed new crimes, Mr. Brittain said.

Buoyed by the program's success, he wants to start a similar one for
men. Treatment would be a better option for most inmates at the jail,
he said.

"East Tennessee is a very conservative area, and folks believe that
people who commit the crime need to do the time, but that's costing
the local government tremendous money to do that," Mr. Brittain said.
"We can't build our way out of jail overcrowding. We've got to change
some of the ways we detain and punish people. We've got to do
something different."
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