Overcrowding breeds ugly fights inside Cocke County jail

Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 6:34 PM EST
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You can't see the problem driving past the Cocke County Jail, but Sheriff Armando Fontes said overcrowding is a breeding ground for fights between inmates.

The inmates are locked away in dorm-style cells, sometimes shared between more than 25 different people.

"When you're in a large group -- it's like a street gang. They all feed off each other," Sheriff Fontes said.

Cocke County currently operates two separate jails. They have 198 inmates, but only 142 beds, Fontes said. The problem isn't unique to Cocke County. Hamblen County is in an even tighter situation.

"Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine being locked in a cell 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with 24 other people."

Fontes said fights break out, which forces his under-staffed jail to break it up with few holding cells to separate the inmates. In 2019, more than 50 assaults were recorded between inmates and officers.

"A jail is a community's largest liability when it comes to lawsuits," Sheriff Fontes said. "This is not a new issue -- it's been here a long time."

It's a problem Fontes doesn't see fading anytime soon. He said addiction is gripping failing family lives across the country, leaving many individuals behind bars.

"Becoming a good, successful person starts in the home. But if you put addiction in the middle of it -- it creates a monster for every community," he said. "I think you see the moral fiber of families breaking down across the nation."

Fontes said jails are more then a facility to lock someone up. He said it's a rehab.

"Jails are full of sick people with several issues including mental health, and drug issues."

However, he said the county is constricted by few resources and little pay for staff making it difficult to find the most qualified candidates for the job.

"You don't get good quality people -- you get a young person looking for a job who lacks the life experiences to help them handle situations," Fontes said. "They need to be the ones who are patient and calm and not react to a mouthy inmate or someone who's being belligerent."

Cocke County recently elected ten new commissioners. Fontes said he is working with them to find a better option. He said they're meeting next month to discuss new ways to stop overcrowding, including possibly building a new facility.

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