By Ben Lawson
When it comes to law enforcement, most people are familiar with the officers and sheriff deputies encountered in everyday life or on television. What may not be as familiar, at least to law abiding citizens, is life inside a jail and the people who keep it running every day.
Like a mini-city all to itself, the Sevier County Jail can only be truly experienced through immersion in the sights, sounds and smells on the inside. As pointed out by jail chief Larry McMahan, pictures wouldn’t do it justice, especially since many areas are off limits to photography, cell phones and, of course, weapons of any sort.
Captain Kent Hatcher, chief jailer for the facility, has given tours to people ranging from media to school children.
For anyone not entering the facility by choice, the journey begins by passing through an area called a sally port, which consists of a short hallway blocked by heavy doors. From there they are taken for fingerprinting. While ink is still sometimes used on rare occasions, the process has been digital since 2002. Once scanned, the suspect’s prints are automatically sent to both the Federal and Tennessee Bureaus of Investigation to identify national warrants.
Booking can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. The booking area includes holding and transport cells, and the drunk tanks, which might see nine or 10 people on a normal day.
“On a good Rod Run night, we can stack 30 or 40 in there,” Hatcher said.
When a suspect joins the inmate population, all their personal items and clothing, except for underwear, are confiscated and replaced by standard issue uniforms, plus items for the cells such as mattresses. Inmates are financially liable for anything they damage during their stay.
When dealing with a population that at times reaches upwards of 500, the jail is equipped for every need. For medical situations, the jail contracts with a local doctor. A dentist also comes in once a month and the facility boasts a fully equipped examination room complete with an X-Ray machine.
“I’m proud of it,” Hatcher said of the dentistry room. “It’s a good set up and really well run.”
Food is also a necessity and the jail provides an average of 1,800 meals a day at the main facility and the annex. In the last year alone, the meals totaled some 486,000. With all food prepared on site, and nothing pre-made brought in, the kitchen staff is able to produce three meals a day for only 76 cents. And the kitchen itself is partially staffed by inmates called trustees, those with non-violent crimes who work for a reduction in their sentences.
“This is probably one of the cleanest, best run kitchens in Sevierville,” Hatcher said.
After opening in 1990, the jail has seen only small scale renovation or expansion. It currently contains three 32 man dorms, two maximum security dorms and one medium security dorm, plus a separate dorm for sex offenders. The outdoor recreational area was also designed for easy conversion into more dorm space if needed.
“In a perfect world, there would be separate female and maximum security facilities,” Hatcher said.
In the meantime, he hopes that people come to understand and appreciate what goes on behind the thick walls.
“This building belongs to the people of Sevier County,” he said.
Jail a World unto Itself
By Ben Lawson