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County forced to turn over jail commissary, will lose $30,000

Following a threat of contempt, members of the Washington County Commission authorized the mayor during the Nov. 22 meeting to sign a contract with the Tennessee Department of Human Services to take over the operations of the Detention Center commissary.
The decision ends a seven-year court battle to retain control of the commissary, which returns an annual profit of between $60,000 and $80,000 to the county’s general fund.
“The state said they would find us in contempt, and rather than costing the county more money, we saw this as our only option,” said Sheriff Ed Graybeal, who recommended the action in a resolution presented to commissioners by County Attorney John Rambo.
The DHS Services of the Blind and Visually Impaired will begin running the commissary in March 2011.
“The Deputy Tennessee General Attorney is involved now to ensure they have service in the facility,” Rambo said.
The dispute over providing commissary services to inmates at the Washington County Detention Center began in 2003.
Following several unsuccessful attempts at a resolution, the secretary of state issued a final order in 2006.
Washington County then appealed the decision in Chancery Court, where it was upheld. Later, the Tennessee Court of Appeals also ruled the state has statutory priority and the county must comply with the DHS demands.
The commissary has been operated by Swanson Services Corp. for almost 10 years. Swanson opened the first out-sourced inmate commissary service in the country in 1983, and has received nothing but praise from Graybeal.
“They have been super good to work with, and their system has never failed,” Graybeal said. “We’ve never had an audit problem, and we’ve never lost any money.”
Graybeal said the detention center receives 300 to 400 commissary orders weekly from the inmate population, which reached its highest headcount ­­— 616 inmates — a few weeks ago.
The commissary offers for purchase a variety of clothing, food and drink items, and hygiene supplies such as toothpaste and toothbrushes.
While the contract details have not been finalized, Graybeal estimates the county will lose half the amount of commissary sales it once generated.
The DHS Services of the Blind and Visually Impaired also will cost the inmates and their families more in terms of higher transaction fees.
Graybeal said the DHS software in the past was “nowhere near what we needed as far as security,” but he was told the software has since been upated. All commissary administrative duties will also be shifted to the DHS Services of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Though no longer primary beneficiaries of the commissary, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office will still be involved in the direct supervision of the new vendor.
“We will hold their feet to the fire, I can guarantee you that,” Graybeal said.