Year after year, the Bristol Herald Courier has published articles about two local governments — Sullivan County and Bristol, Virginia — grappling with the sticky problem of jail overcrowding.

For the last five years, Sullivan County officials have lived with the specter of possible decertification of their jail facilities. In recent months, the population has exceeded 1,000, nearly 400 more than their capacity.

The main jail was built 32 years ago and has been overcrowded since, though beds have been added over the years and an “extension” opened.

Bristol, Virginia’s lockup was built nearly 50 years ago. Although the jail’s capacity is 67, it typically has 150-160 prisoners and an additional 50-60 are housed at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Abingdon.

Although we bring our readers the daily news about jail overcrowding, we wanted to undertake an intensive examination of the problem and how it affects our communities and readers.

Over the next week, we will deliver a special report titled “Critical Mass” that is the result of eight months of investigation and hard work by reporters, photographers and editors. Between today and next Sunday, we will feature 24 stories, dozens of photos, a number of colorful graphics, videos and podcasts, all aimed at helping you understand the magnitude of the issue.

We will take you inside the jails, where we talked about the living conditions with inmates — many who sleep on mats on the floor. We will bring you personal stories of people who’ve spent years in and out of a number of jails and local residents who land in jail due to a drug habit.

We will explore the dangers of overcrowding. In Sullivan County, the high number of inmates combined with the jail’s linear design increases the threat for inmates and officers, who put their lives on the line every day. Inmate-on-inmate violence and assaults of officers are common.

And we will look at possible solutions and tell you what happens next in both localities.

Our thanks go to Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy and Bristol Virginia Sheriff David Maples, without whom we couldn’t have completed this project. Each sheriff visited the newspaper and answered a lot of tough questions. They granted us unprecedented access — for this newspaper — to the jails, and our cameras were allowed inside.

For the first time, the Herald Courier will conduct a town hall, in conjunction with this project. Many of the voices in these stories are scheduled to answer questions, including Maples, Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus and Bristol Virginia City Manager Randy Eads. It will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the old Sullivan County Courthouse in Blountville. We hope you’ll participate. If you can’t be there, the newspaper will stream it live on its Facebook page.

The subject is timely. In the last few months, Sullivan County hired architects to come up with a master plan for the jail’s future and that plan could go to the County Commission in November.

Three times, Bristol Virginia officials have considered — and decided against — joining the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail. Although the city shelled out more than $600,000 in the last fiscal year just to house its 50-60 excess inmates at the regional jail, it turns out that’s cheaper than closing the city jail and joining the authority.

At the same time, the two local governments have another reality in common: tight finances and the need to replace aging, outdated school buildings.

As it turns out, however, even if both local governments had the money, what has become increasingly clear — to them and to us — is the answer isn’t as simple as adding beds through renovation or a new facility.

Since the sheriffs estimate that 75%-85% of inmates are there because of drugs, rehabilitation treatment is needed along with vocational and life skills training to help ensure inmates who do get out don’t return. The overcrowded facilities, however, make this more difficult because there’s nowhere to hold the classes.

The city and county each also have other programs — alternative sentencing and drug courts — though, so far, they’re not making a noticeable difference in the number of inmates.

And something needs to be done about the high number of pretrial and mentally ill inmates that flood the jails.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions. But solutions must be found — soon.

So, why should you care?

As I edited the stories over the last month, I was struck by this thought: Both overcrowded jails are a disaster waiting to happen — be it a serious injury or death of a guard, a riot or even an escape that could threaten the community. Or there could be a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by inmates whose constitutional rights are being violated, as Sullivan County’s sheriff recently warned.

And, simply put, you’re paying for it. If Sullivan County officials decide to build a jail at an estimated cost of $110 million, it would cost each county resident nearly $700, while the cost per household would be $1,656.

And one more thing. It’s not inconceivable that some member of your family, or mine, might develop a drug problem and wind up in one of the local jails. Or maybe you will be accused of a crime you didn’t commit.

As remote as the possibility may seem, one of your loved ones — or even you — might end up in a jail cell teeming with angry, uncomfortable inmates and sleeping on a mat on the floor next to the toilet.

— City Editor Susan Cameron

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