Staffing shortage puts Tenn. jail on lockdown

Officials said there are too few trained corrections officers on the payroll to ensure security

By Judy Walton
Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn.

BRADLEY COUNTY, Tenn. — Inmates in the Bradley County Jail are on lockdown and jail ministry programs have been shut down because there are too few trained corrections officers on the payroll to ensure security.

Bradley County Commissioner Jeff Yarber, who heads the commission's Law Enforcement Committee, said he was told there were more than a half-dozen unfilled corrections officer positions and that a few officers were on medical leave.

Yarber confirmed that of the 68 corrections officers, more than 40 are first-year probationers who are supposed to be supervised by senior personnel. A source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said the staffing shortage was reported to the sheriff's office administration in an email this week. The source said the email cited risk to officers, inmates and civilians as factors behind the decision to shut down jail ministry programs.

The Times Free Press requested the email under Tennessee's Open Records Act on Friday, but Chief Deputy James E. Bradford Jr. said it would not be made available until Tuesday.

Yarber said he talked to Bradford and Sheriff Eric Watson but doesn't have any idea how long the jail will be locked down.

"I went over there [Thursday] and they were trying to get interviews set up, trying to alleviate the problem," he said. The situation is worrisome, he said.

"There are inmates in there that are high on testosterone. It always worries me," Yarber said.

The source said and Yarber confirmed that there had been some personnel shuffling, with some corrections officers moved to court security. It's been a bone of contention between the sheriff's office and some commissioners that court security officers are paid out of the corrections budget.

He said the department would rather use sworn officers on tasks other than court security, so certified corrections officers may be assigned to the job.

"They say [the officers] are still working with inmates. If you don't have them doing that, you have to have corrections officers bring them over" from jail to court.

Overcrowding and staffing shortages are a chronic problem in many jails, not just Bradley County.

The salaries and benefits need improvement, Yarber said, and the sheriff's office needs a plan to address corrections staffing.

"I believe what you should do is, if you're short a position, you should come and ask for that position," he said.

The county budget process is underway and Yarber said he's going to ask whether there's money in it to beef up corrections.

He also said he's spoken with Sheriff-elect Steve Lawson about the issue.

"He's wanting to sit down and talk and try to formulate a plan as he comes in" on Sept. 1.

Lawson could not be reached for comment Friday. He was head of the department's criminal investigation division before resigning in January to run for the top spot. He defeated Watson in the May 1 Republican primary, and no Democrat sought to run for the seat in the Aug. 2 general election.

The Tennessee Corrections Institute, which supervises and inspects county jails, had no comment on the shutdown Friday, spokesman Kevin Walters said.

The Bradley County Jail flunked a TCI inspection in February and failed to meet all minimum standards in an April 3 re-inspection. The jail may retain its certification if TCI approves an updated plan of correction at its June 6 meeting in Nashville, Executive Director Beth Ashe said in an April 4 letter to Watson.

©2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

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