Handcuffed and shackled, carrying plastic garbage bags containing all of their belongings, 288 Carter County prisoners were systematically transferred from the old jail to the new jail on Monday, completing nearly 10 years of planning and construction.
It took nearly 12 hours on Monday to complete, but all 288 prisoners were moved from one building to the other without any major problems.
Carter County Sheriff’s Department crews, including all jail staff members, began arriving at 5:30 a.m. Monday in preparation of the move. Only a limited number of staff members actually knew the move had been planned for Monday. No prisoners, including trustees, were informed in advance. Prisoners were not told in advance of the move date in order to complete the task without any safety or security issues.
“We took them by surprise,” Captain Tom Smith said. “Whenever we began, they didn’t have any idea that we were moving them. There was a lot of suspicion, but there was nothing firm. Most of them were lying in there asleep, which is what we had planned and hoped.”
Staff members began in the old jail facility, emptying one block at a time. The prisoners were given black garbage bags. “We told them anything that belongs to them, go ahead and put it in the bag,” Smith said.
The prisoners were then handcuffed and shackled. In groups, they were then taken downstairs from the old jail, outside into the area between the two buildings and into the new jail. Each of the prisoners then handed their bag of items to staff for searches. Supervising staff members observed the searches. The prisoners were then taken to a cell block, where they placed their personal items into property and took showers. Every prisoner was then given underwear, outer clothing, socks and shoes. Each prisoner was also provided a mattress, sheets and a blanket.
After being issued clothes and bedding materials, the prisoners were staged until they could be transported to their final cell block. Smith said staff members had assigned cells for every prisoner. Once the move was complete, staff spoke to the prisoners about rules and procedures which must be followed in the new facility.
The last prisoner exited the old jail at 1:15 p.m. Monday. With the old jail empty, staff then moved all of the prisoners from the pods into the new jail. The final prisoners were moved around 5 p.m.
“Everything has gone smoothly,” Smith said. “We have had no issues with the inmates.”
The inmates cooperated throughout the move, the captain said. Smith added that there was a mixed reaction from the prisoners. “I had one female trustee who was scared to death because she didn’t like change,” he said. “It’s going to be a new experience for them.”
There were a few inmates who began banging on the doors, but Smith said officers were able to make them stop.
“We had a few glitches with the doors and things,” Smith said.
A company was called and worked on the locks and doors throughout the day. A few doors would not open or would not stay locked. The malfunctioning doors were primarily in the hallways and most of the problems were away from where inmates have access. Smith said some of the doors would not open electronically, so they had to be opened with a key. “Nothing that the inmates have been able to manipulate and get out,” Smith noted.
The captain said he was pleased with the move. “The anticipation has been so great for many of us,” he said. “Last night, I couldn’t sleep. It paid off for us this morning.”
Staff members have been preparing for the move for about two months. The plans were reviewed several times and changes were made in order to complete the task successfully.
“Everyone is really happy with the way things have gone,” Smith said.
There was some confusion on Monday for arresting officers who arrived to book new prisoners into jail. At least one officer took a prisoner to the old jail and was directed to the new booking location.
Although it had been expected, no prisoners slept on the new jail’s floor last night. There was some fear among county officials that the new jail would be full when it opened. The new jail has a capacity of 296, but due to female/male ratio requirements, that number could be less. In recent months, the jail population has exceeded 296.
On Saturday, the jail hosted a unique lock-in for local youth. About 100 people from around the county gathered at the jail. The youth were served jail food, housed in cell blocks, and listened to a Christian band and various speakers. Smith said the event gave staff members a final exercise in the new jail before prisoners were brought in on Monday. He said youth seemed to enjoy the event and it was considered a success by the jail administration.
With the old jail and pods empty, staff will soon begin cleaning up the vacant facilities. The pods are being prepared to go up for auction. Once they are gone, the county is expected to build a parking lot. No decision has been made regarding what to do with the old jail.
The old jail opened in 1981 and has been overcrowded for more than a decade. About 10 years ago, prisoners filed lawsuits in federal district court, which led county officials to construct the new $26 million jail.