Sheriff works to protect Coffee County staff outnumbered by inmates

Sheriff works to protect Coffee County staff outnumbered by inmates (Image 1)

Coffee County’s sheriff is working to protect his jail staff who are at times outnumbered by the inmates by 100 to 1.

The Coffee County’s 13 male cells and three female cells are overcrowded by around double its capacity.

Sheriff Steve Graves said overcrowding is an ongoing problem in his jail, which is built to house around 190 inmates but, at times, houses more than 300.

They are inmates who cannot make bond or are being held without bonds.

“We are still definitely really overcrowded,” he said. “You go to bed every night and wonder if one of your correctional officers is going to get hurt seriously or killed.”

Sheriff Graves said the jail is so understaffed that on some shifts, as few as three deputies are left to guard the 300 or more inmates.

He said one or two deputies may have to enter a cell with 30 inmates if a fight breaks out.

“We have a lot of fights,” Sheriff Graves said. “I have correctional officers who end up getting hurt when they go into a cell with 40-plus people to break up a fight.”

The sheriff said it is also leading to increasing medical costs to the county for both the inmates and the jail employees.

The situation also makes it impossible for the sheriff to segregate the population for inmate safety.

“We are putting serious criminals, rapists and murderers in with minor criminals,” Sheriff Graves said.

He told News 2 he has worked with the district attorney’s office to secure early release for non-violent offenders.

A new jail is under construction, but will not be completed until July. It will house up to 400 inmates and be expandable to 600.

It will also allow for inmates to be separated by violent and non-violent crimes.

The sheriff does not have the power to release inmates early without a judge’s permission.

News 2 talked to one of the three General Sessions judges in Coffee County, Judge Jere Ledsinger.

“I have said every mother’s child that goes into that jail ought to be able to be safe and protected,” he said. “They should come out in as good of health as they were when they went in there.”

Judge Ledsinger has seen the Coffee County jail himself. He said in his court he considers the overcrowding situation and the conditions when considering whether to send someone to jail.

“From the bench, I have considered other alternatives other than putting them in jail in the first place,” he said. “We try to get a lot of our people that are addicted to drugs into different programs.”

The sheriff also works with the District Attorney’s office to come up with inmates who would qualify for early release, which means inmates with non-violent criminal charges and inmates who are not serving a mandatory sentence.

Also, inmates who are able to work on the work detail can receive two days credit for every one day they work on the detail, which allows them to be released sooner.

The jail lost its state certification to house state inmates as a result of the overcrowding situation in 2012.

When the new jail opens, it is possible the sheriff could get the jail recertified, which would allow for state inmates serving in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Corrections to be housed in the new jail.

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