TN Prisons Full; Expansion in the Works

State prisons are packed, the inmates who can’t fit in are filling up local jails, and the system for transitioning people out is losing credibility, reports Andrea Zelinski. But policy makers back on Capitol Hill have bigger appetites to stiffen punishments for criminals than to tackle the troubled corrections system that manages the people lawmakers want thrown in there.
“Although it makes us feel good and it is an absolute necessity to lock people up, we’re losing the battle because we’re continuing to build more jails,” said (Rep.) Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican who pushes for tougher sentencing laws. “All we’re doing is perpetuating the problem and kicking the can down the road.”
The state’s 14 prisons are collectively at 98 percent capacity, with an overflow of about 5,000 inmates serving some, if not all, of their time at local jails while they wait for a prison bed to open up, according to the Department of Correction.
Gov. Bill Haslam noted the problem during his State of the State address last week. A recent study found that more than 600 violent crimes are committed per 100,000 people in Tennessee, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The figure is second only to Washington, D.C., with more than 1,200 crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Among other things, a better education system will help chip away at the problem, Haslam said, but in the meantime, he promised more money to the corrections system. His $32.7 billion budget plan released last week includes spending more than $120 million new dollars to house inmates. That would help bring the department’s budget more than $900 million next year.
The governor also wants to spend $30.2 million to expand the not-yet-reopened Bledsoe Correctional Complex — formerly Southeastern Tennessee Regional Correctional Facility — in Pikeville, which will begin accepting some 1,500 inmates this spring. The two-year expansion project would add another 512 beds.
In the meantime, Haslam wants to divvy out nearly $42 million in checks to local jails for housing more state inmates this year than the state expected, plus another $48 million for the inmates who won’t fit next year.

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