BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Stepping into the old Sullivan County jail in the basement of the county courthouse in Blountville is like experiencing déjà vu because its setup is so similar to the current facilities.
The jail housed inmates for more than 30 years until the Sullivan County Justice Center, which houses the current main jail facility, opened in 1987. The old cells are now used to store records from county departments.
Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bruce Bullis recently took the Bristol Herald Courier on a tour of the old jail. He was hired by the department to work in the jail in January 1983 and worked there for nine months.
There were eight cells upstairs and two downstairs, a dumbwaiter and kitchen. Today, the county’s print shop and central receiving office are housed where the kitchen and two cells — one for women and one for trusties — used to be. Juveniles were also housed there.
The dumbwaiter — used to send trays of food — also remains.
The “tank,” or a cell where inmates were kept separate from others to “deescalate or sober up,” Bullis said, was downstairs, and there was only one. The visitation area for inmates’ families, a lobby, the dispatch center, former Sheriff Mike Gardner’s office and the Records Division were also downstairs.
Because the jail entrance was on the side of the courthouse, inmates were unloaded from vehicles and walked inside the jail from the parking lot near the public.
The “Old Sheriff’s Home,” which has since been renovated and renamed the Heritage Tourism Information Center, had about 30 cells and was used as a work release area for inmates, Bullis said. Inmates were let out of jail to work during the day. Deputies sat outside and guarded it.
The “Old Sheriff’s Home” was built in 1868 and had one jail cell, according to Shelia Hunt, Sullivan County’s Department of Archives and Tourism executive director.
“By 1920, a newer jail had been built on a rise behind the courthouse,” she said. “This jail was a Georgian structure that sat within just a few feet of the Old Sheriff’s Home. By the 1950s, jail conditions were considered atrocious, and a new jail was built in the form of a wing on the back of the present-day Sullivan County Courthouse. This new jail was opened in 1956.”
To abide by a July 2, 1986, federal order, the county closed that jail. The order followed the filing of a June 25 class-action lawsuit by inmates who claimed the jail conditions were inhumane and caused needless punishment, which successfully challenged the constitutionality of confinement conditions, according to Bristol Herald Courier archives.
The order gave the county 180 days to reduce inmate population by 65-75 inmates and 90 days to reduce the population to 100.
A minimum security annex was built to temporarily house inmates while the new jail — the current main jail — was built. It was meant to temporarily house inmates until the new jail opened, but inmates were still housed there after the new jail opened. That building closed several years ago because of security breaches, according to Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy and Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell.
Cassidy, Carswell, county commissioners and others have been saying for months — and others, including former Sheriff Wayne Anderson, have said for years — that the current jail is understaffed. That was a problem with the old jail, too, Bullis said. There were 60 inmates, on average, when he started working there, and by the time he left to go to the police academy there was an average of 80 inmates, he said.
“It was overcrowded then, and that’s what brought the federal lawsuit,” Bullis said. “…It’s the same design, which is pitiful — way outdated.”
When Bullis worked at the old jail, a 12-by-12-foot “exercise yard,” or outdoor recreation area, was made by cutting a hole in the wall, installing a door and building a fence around the area, Bullis said.
“When they had them out there, an officer had to take a shotgun and go upstairs … and come out the window and sit out there and watch them on the roof with a shotgun,” he said. “It just brings back memories of stuff you see on Mayberry. It’s funny now, but that stuff happened.”