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County jail aims to reduce inmate population

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Four months into a new administration, the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office is focused on reducing its jail population and bolstering inmate morale, even introducing TVs into the facility's pods.

The jail's population surpassed 1,000 in November 2016 but is down to 761, and Deputy Chief Bernard Salandy, who became jail administrator after Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh took office in January, is determined to push it down to 400 or 500 within the next five years.

"A high percentage don't need to be incarcerated," says Salandy who moved to the jail post from the Rutherford County Correctional Work Center.

To meet such a goal, he says, the jail command staff is changing the culture and mindset, along with county government.

Pre-trial risk assessment is a new approach, one in which judicial commissioners are beginning to determine how high a bond should be set for people who are arrested. That couples with the creation of a new General Sessions judge position, held by Lisa Eischeid, in which she tries to resolve new cases as quickly as possible at the jail. It's a big change from what was called the 10-day docket in place before she took office last September.

In addition, Rutherford County Probation Services, though its numbers are up to 3,600 from 2,900 the previous year, is trying to keep people out of jail, says Director Trey King.

Rutherford County set up its own probation service after the county and private company running the operation were sued in a class action lawsuit. PCC withdrew its services in April 2016.

"We will have to take a more proactive approach toward rehabilitation versus incarceration," King says.

Turning over a new leaf
Fitzhugh and Salandy echo those words.

The main change in the department's outlook since Fitzhugh took over as sheriff is opening the jail to outside agencies and companies to get involved with helping change the direction of inmates' lives through counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment and job training.

"We've got to do something to help the inmates help themselves. Otherwise, we won't be able to build enough jail cells," Fitzhugh says.

One of the first things inmates go through when booked is a needs and risk assessment, according to Salandy. Once that is done, the administration can determine inmates' needs, whether they can be allowed to participate in work-release programs with local companies or go through counseling with faith-based organizations. Remedial education, job skills and basic life skills are integral parts of the evolution as well, officials say.

"We're just reaching out to those resources and they're coming in every day," Salandy says.

He describes one situation in which a woman who had been a model inmate for two years went through an employment agency and was even being fitted with clothes from a local store. Within two days of release she was employed, according to Salandy.

"If you're not getting them ready for society, what are you doing?" Salandy asks. "I want to know what your game plan is."

Capt. Chris Fly, who moved to the jail with Salandy from the workhouse, points out "reinforcing personal accountability" is the jail staff's new credo. One of the first steps the new command staff took was to double the amount of workers at the jail, which can reduce their time through credits, so they're not simply sitting in their cells all day and can participate in productive activities.

Shortly after taking over, Salandy and Fly noticed a lack of discipline within the inmate pods. They say they simply started enforcing rules already in effect and sent a message to inmates that bad behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

"We had to change the culture," Salandy says.

Flipping the channel
The adult detention center purchased 22 TVs for $7,259, putting one in each of the facility's 22 pods.

None of the TVs were bought with county taxpayers' funds, but were purchased with money in a Drug Enforcement Administration account.

"It's not for entertainment," Fitzhugh says.

He acknowledge the move is quite a shift because the jail has had a reputation for years as a "tough facility," one in which TVs and exercise equipment were not allowed.

Fitzhugh contends the TVs can be used for "behavior management," giving inmates some incentive to follow detention center rules. TVs will be used to provide inmates with information, current events and educational programs, including rules and regulations, video about the Prison Rape Elimination Act and announcements from staff and administration. Current events on TV will be daily news, and educational programming each morning includes topics on health, substance abuse, American and world history and job interviewing and training.

"Primarily, TVs will be used for educational purposes," Fitzhugh says. "On occasion, with good behavior, they will be able to watch certain programs like sports."

Staff will control the TVs, which will be available based on behavior, such cleanliness of cells and pods. If inmates show good behavior, they can be rewarded with sports shows and movies, according to Salandy.

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