Justice Center gets much-needed improvements
Published 8:53 am Friday, December 26, 2014
One of the busiest county buildings is getting a face lift — its first in three decades.
Work is underway at the Carter County Justice Center to improve the building’s efficiency and security while making needed upgrades and repairs. The building, which houses the Sheriff’s Department, Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, the office of the General Sessions Judge and two courtrooms, was built in the early 1980s and has not had any substantial updates since that time.
“Nothing was updated, and it is just falling apart,” Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said. “The paneling is from the ’80s. The desk in my office has been sitting there since the building opened in 1982.”
Lunceford’s office is not the only part of the building getting some much-needed repairs.
“We replaced the ceiling tiles throughout the building,” Circuit Court Clerk Johnny Blankenship said.
While replacing ceiling tiles may not sound like much in the way of renovations, it was a necessary improvement, Blankenship said.
Before the new Carter County Detention Center opened, inmates were housed in the old jail, which was in the upstairs portion of the Justice Center. That design put the inmate housing area directly over top of the Sheriff’s Department, Clerk’s Offices and the courtrooms. The old jail was flooded by inmates on numerous occasions, resulting in water and sewage spilling from the jail through the ceiling into the offices and courtrooms below.
But now, Blankenship said, the ceilings have been cleaned out and all the ceiling tiles replaced. The clerk’s offices also received new paint and mouldings on the walls.
“We are trying to make it more of a professional office setting,” Blankenship said.
Additionally, both the General Sessions and Criminal Court courtrooms will be getting upgrades and repairs.
Work is currently in progress on the General Sessions courtroom. Once it is finished, Blankenship said crews will begin work on the Criminal Court courtroom.
One of the changes in courtroom will help increase court security, General Sessions Judge Keith Bowers, Jr., said. By removing an old cubicle which sat in the corner and installing a half-wall at the end of the judge’s bench, bailiffs are now able to bring inmates to court using a secure doorway which leads straight into the courtroom from the jail facility.
Previously, Bowers said, inmates were brought in through another door and had to be escorted down the hallway by officers. This created problems in keeping inmates separate from the general public. The new arrangement will not only increase safety, Bowers said it will also cut down on contraband issues for the jail facility and Lunceford agreed.
Another change which may seem minor but isn’t, Bowers said lighting within the building has been replaced with more energy efficient fixtures and bulbs.
“Within a year or so we will save enough on electricity to pay for the lights,” Bowers said.
One of the most noticeable changes to the General Sessions courtroom is the removal of an old witness box which sat largely unused in the middle of the floor.
The box interrupted the movement within the courtroom, Bowers said, adding every defendant had to approach the bench directly which created security issues.
The old witness box has been removed and will be replaced by a podium, Bowers said.
“We saved money by building a podium instead of buying one,” Bowers said, adding inmate labor was used to construct the podium.
Among the plans for upgrades to both courtrooms are plans to improve the recording systems. The current recording systems are old and incompatible, Bowers said.
Each of the three office holders – Lunceford, Blankenship and Bowers — have taken money from their own budgets to make to help with the repairs while additional funds were obtained through the county’s building and grounds budget. Bowers said he has personally taken money out of his own pocket for some of the repairs.
“It takes teamwork to get a project like this done,” Blankenship said. Bowers agreed, adding “I think we’ve worked really smoothly together.” Bowers said Mayor Leon Humphrey and Finance Director Ingrid Deloach have been instrumental in helping to get the project underway.
Lunceford said all of the elected officials have a great working relationship and that is how it should be. “We can call each other any time,” he said.
To help save the county money, Blankenship said inmate work crews from the Tennessee Department of Corrections as well as the Carter County Detention Center have been used for to complete much of the labor.