Local News

Story published: 12-11-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Security contract ending for Justice Center, task force considers new one

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

With the two-year security contract for the George P. Jaynes Justice Center at an end, county officials met Nov. 29 to discuss ideas for improvements in multiple areas of the building.

After reviewing minutes of the last meeting, held almost two years ago, members of the Justice Center Task Force started with the alarm system, which is being renewed on a monthly basis at this time.

Greg Matherly, Washington County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant over support services in charge of security, said safety measures in the building have come a long way since he stepped into the role one year ago.

“Daily inspections and ongoing operations are two of the things I’ve concentrated on,” he told task force members.

Originally, when an alarm button was activated, the signal was answered in Knoxville. A call was then made to Washington County 911 who notified the Jonesborough police.

“The average response time was 7 minutes, which is way too long,” Matherly said. “Other times, (Jonesborough police) would call and say ‘there’s a fight going on in courtroom 4.’”

In addition, the individual activating the alarm had to keep his or her thumb on the button continuously or the signal was deactivated.

The alarm is now heard at the WCSO officer station on the first floor, and the response time has been cut to seconds, according to Matherly. While the town may be contacted in the event of a fire, Matherly said security responses can be handled by the 17 WCSO deputies assigned to the Justice Center.

Once activated, an alarm will continue to sound until a WCSO deputy unlocks it.

Matherly offered additional suggestions for improvement. “I think the response would be a whole lot better if a local provider could monitor the system,” he said.

The Detention Center and the Justice Center operate on different systems, Matherly explained, and it would cost thousands to retrofit one to work with the other.

“We’re kind of at an impasse on who can monitor our alarms,” he said.

An emergency evacuation plan has been developed and is being considered by Sheriff Ed Graybeal, who has jurisdiction over the Justice Center.

Judge Thomas Seeley and Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd said they were both in their offices and had no idea the building was being evacuated during what turned out to be a false bomb scare on Nov. 5.

Sneyd and District Attorney General Tony Clark also expressed concern about their offices having only one door, and the potential danger that could cause if the building were to catch fire.

Mayor Dan Eldridge said plans for the Justice Center were reviewed and approved by the state fire marshal, and the building meets every safety requirement and is in no violation of any fire codes.

Attorney Tony Seaton has been working with Purchasing Director Willie Shrewsbury to determine a better signage plan for the building.

“I’m proposing two signs,” Seaton said. “One that indicates where the courtrooms are located, and an electronic calendar that lists all events taking place in the Justice Center.”

Cost for the system is $12,000, which includes one monitor, software and installation. A presentation will be made by the providers during the next meeting.

County Attorney John Rambo, chair of the task force, said he has received several requests for windows to be installed in the defense attorney conference rooms located in the hallway.

Task force members considered a suggestion to attach some kind of panel to the doors that could be flipped to indicate “in session,” but decided that system may not always be followed because the attorneys are in and out of the rooms so quickly.

Clark said the work camp inmates may be available to install the windows.

Rambo asked Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn for an update on plans for space and equipment for the third Sessions Court judge who will be appointed by the county commission on Jan. 3, 2013.

Guinn said she is waiting for an answer on grant funds before purchasing a laptop and digital recording equipment.

Seeley said the courtrooms are rarely all in use at the same time, and he doesn’t think space will be a problem.

According to Rambo, the constant churning of the Sessions courts keeps people concentrated in courtrooms 1 and 2, and he wondered if the Criminal courts could move to the second floor.

This proposed solution could be quite costly, according to Matherly. “If you move the judges, you have to move the prisoners,” he said.

Installing an elevator on the side of the Justice Center where the holding cell is located would cost an estimated $100,000.

“We also would have to increase the number of holding cell staff from the two we have on the first floor if we create a second cell,” he said.

The WCSO would be required to bring prisoners up the elevator in shackles, which could get complicated. “I have seen 90 criminal cases scheduled for one day,” Matherly said.