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Rhea County Sheriffs Department could lose certification due to jail overcrowding

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RHEA COUNTY, TN (WRCB) - Multi-million dollar lawsuits, that's what state officials say is at stake if Rhea County deputies don't get a handle on the overcrowding issue in their jailhouse.

The Sheriff's Department could loose it's State certification if county officials fail to come up with a plan of action as early as next month.

"I don't see any relief in sight the county is growing with businesses..our population is growing," said Chief Deputy John Argo.

The Rhea County Jail is only certified to house 87 inmates, right now there are 143 staying there. At most the jail has housed 180 inmates. Deputies say the overcrowding makes it impossible to separate the sick, misbehaved or high risk inmates from the general population

"When our numbers are up over 87, we have to start letting people sleep on the floor. We have to make do with the space and the facility we have," said Chief Deputy Argo. "There are cells with 4 beds in it that have had as many as 10-12 people in them and one toilet."

Sheriff Mike Neal says another big concern, the 4 unarmed jailers monitoring all 143 inmates are having to use out dated key-lock doors.

"Instead of the electronic doors there is no one sitting in a control center monitoring them that can buzz extra guards in or officers off the street in. Just the modernization of the facility is very bad for us right now. It's dangerous, it puts us in a bad spot and it makes it dangerous for our guards," said Chief Deputy Argo.

Officials say the Sheriff's Department has purchased a property but the funding to build a new facility just isn't there.

"It's a legitimate concern to us... we are doing everything we can and without help of the commission and of the state or whoever that needs to help us, our hands are tied at what we can do here," said Chief Deputy Argo.

If the jail looses it's certification by that state, officials say current overcrowding conditions could lead to future multi-million dollar lawsuits filed against the county for an 8th Amendment violation citing cruel and unusual punishment.

Sheriff Neal says he will meet the Tennessee Corrections Institute in December to discuss a plan of action.

So far tax payers have not paid anything towards funding a new facility.

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