Rhea Co. Sheriff's Office says its jail is danger to public - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Rhea Co. Sheriff's Office says its jail is danger to public

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DAYTON, TN (WRCB) - It's been more than a decade since the state of Tennessee ordered Rhea County to build a bigger, safer jail, but it still hasn't happened.

The Rhea County Sheriff's Office says the jail is only getting worse as the county grows. It's always over the state regulated capacity, many times by double. Officials say the scariest part is having to walk large groups of inmates alongside the public in order to get them to court. Thursday that trip included 44 inmates at once and resulted in some members of the public sneaking contraband to their handcuffed buddies.

In most cities you wouldn't see shackled inmates shuffling down the street, but it's a common sight in Dayton. There's about 100 yards between the rhea county jail and courthouse. Getting these accused criminals their time before a judge means walking them through parking lots and across the road.

"That's a concern for the safety of my officers and the people in the courthouse," Rhea County Chief Deputy John Argo said.

The sheriff's office pulls officers off their posts throughout the county to make the trips, but says even then, they're out numbered and exposed.

"This morning within just minutes of getting them out and going into the courthouse, we caught two inmates receiving contraband," Argo said.

This time it was tobacco, but they say it could've just as easily been a gun. That's a concern that grows as the inmate population multiplies. The max capacity is 87 inmates, Thursday there were 135.

"We were hit by the state for either expansion or a new facility... so we've been 12 years into waiting," Argo said.

The state required the county to make a move and purchase the land for the jail to be built on, so it did. But the around seven and a half acre lot has been sitting untouched since last summer.

"We've been having monthly meetings and giving the state progress reports," Rhea County Executive George Thacker said.

They want to combine the jail and courts into a new one building justice center, which is an estimated cost of around $14 million. It's money the county commission hasn't come up with yet as they weigh it against other needs, like road improvements.

"I guess I'm going to have to really get focused and figure out which ones are the most important. And to me, it matters who you ask. They're all important," Thacker said.

The sheriff's office argues the jail problem poses the most danger to the public.

"You know if it was here tomorrow it wouldn't be soon enough," Argo said.

The county came up with the money for the land last year from court fees. County officials say they're trying to figure out a way to pay for the jail without raising taxes.

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