BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Jesse Rutledge was sitting in a cell in the Sullivan County jail in early December 2019, watching TV to forget his surroundings, when the possibility of release caught him by surprise.
Rutledge, who grew up in Johnson City and now lives in Damascus, had been booked into the jail Nov. 12 on a handful of charges. He violated the probation he was serving for multiple counts of driving with a suspended license — a license he’d lost for falling behind on child support payments. He also faced charges of identity theft and failure to appear in court. Rutledge was jailed without bond.
The 28-year-old had been inside the whitewashed cinder block walls of the jail in Blountville a number of times before. But this time was “very, very rough,” Rutledge said in a phone interview.
“I couldn’t talk to my kids, I didn’t have any visits, nothing,” he said.
Because the jail was so packed with inmates at the time, Rutledge was sleeping on the floor. When he couldn’t sleep, he showered, watched TV, worked out or simply paced his cell.
Then, one day an officer named Josh Adams asked Rutledge if he wanted to participate in a new program called pretrial release. If Judge J. Klyne Lauderback, the General Sessions Court judge handling Rutledge’s case, agreed to let him participate, Rutledge could leave the jail and be monitored from home. Was he interested?
“I was kind of skeptical about it,” Rutledge said of his reaction. “I didn’t know if it was just a joke.”
But he said the chance to see his family again — to not miss any more birthdays, holidays or funerals beyond the many he’d already missed — was impossible not to take.
After several “nerve-wracking” days, Rutledge said, Lauderback gave him the green light. Adams fastened an electronic monitor around his ankle and showed him how to charge it.
Rutledge called his fiancée, Megan, to tell her the good news.
“I said, ‘Baby, I’m on my way home. ... Call my dad, and tell my dad I’m walking to my Uncle Randy’s,’” he recalled saying.
He was so eager to put the jail behind him, he said, that he ran the entire way.
‘We’ve got to have short-term relief’
Rutledge was the first Sullivan County jail inmate to join its new pretrial release program. Half a year after the Sheriff’s Office launched the program to help alleviate jail overcrowding, more than 200 inmates have been released under its aegis.
For years, the aging jail has struggled to manage an inmate population that has often climbed far above its maximum capacity of 619 people — a crisis the Bristol Herald Courier reported on extensively last year in a weeklong series called “Critical Mass.”
“We had swelled up to ... around 1,080 inmates, close to 1,100, last September,” Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell said.
Previous proposals for how to get those numbers under control came and went. Back in 2011, for example, former Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson recommended sentencing nonviolent offenders to house arrest and sending them home with ankle monitors, but the idea didn’t get any real traction. And County Attorney Dan Street said he unsuccessfully floated the idea of having the county sign bonds for some defendants who faced minor charges and couldn’t afford bail.
In 2019, however, Street turned his attention to a pretrial release program in Knox County. That July, he traveled there with Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy and a handful of other officials from the county criminal justice system to see it in action.
“It was really impressive, what they were doing. I think they had, like, 900 inmates out [of jail] on their program,” Street said. “I thought, if we could just get 20% [of the Sullivan County jail’s inmates] out, 200 out, that would pull our population way down.”
Street said he began looking for more information about pretrial release programs, and realized that he’d stumbled upon a trend.
“It was starting to take hold across the nation,” Street said. “There were other states and counties and cities that were doing it. … It was not unique to this area by any means,” he said.
Meanwhile, the pressure to reduce the county jail’s population climbed higher in November, when a former inmate filed a $3 million class-action lawsuit against the county, Cassidy, Carswell and a number of other jail officials. The inmate, Travis Bellew, had been assaulted by a former corrections officer named Christopher Sabo in 2018. His suit claimed that the assault stemmed from “the violent culture created by decrepit jail conditions,” including the overcrowding.
“That was a catalyst,” Carswell said of the lawsuit. “We had to take some sort of action to show that we were trying to reduce the population.”
Just after the lawsuit was filed, the Sullivan County Commission asked Cassidy, District Attorney General Barry Staubus and a variety of other officials in the county’s criminal justice system to pitch some short-term solutions to the overcrowding crisis. The commission had already begun working with some design firms to explore its options for renovating the old jail or building a new one. But Carswell said there isn’t any money to fund such a project right now, and Cassidy said the construction would be a long process.
“Even if they put a shovel in the back gate for a jail today, we’re still talking three, four years [before it would be finished],” Cassidy said. “We’ve got to have short-term relief.”
One of the solutions Cassidy pitched — with support from Carswell, Street, other county attorneys and a number of judges — was a pretrial release program. Cassidy said his initial proposal requested five new officers to run it. But on Nov. 21, when the County Commission approved the program, it gave the Sheriff’s Office 10 new officers and $817,000 to get it started.
Three weeks later, Rutledge was released with his ankle monitor.
The mechanics of the program
In the program’s terminology, Rutledge was released under “Intensive” or “Level III” supervision, the highest level of surveillance for participants. To stay out of jail, he had to visit the facility once a week to check in with Adams and call Adams three times a week. He also had to wear the ankle monitor at all times and charge it for at least one consecutive hour each day.
Defendants like Rutledge go through several rounds of assessment to determine whether they can join the program. When they’re booked into a jail, a pretrial officer reviews their criminal record using a risk assessment tool — basically a checklist that tallies up their previous arrests, convictions and failures to appear. Adams said that anyone with violent charges won’t be considered.
If the defendant gets a good enough score from the risk assessment tool, and if they can prove they have a place to stay outside the jail, the pretrial team will recommend them to their respective judge as a potential pretrial candidate.
“We basically take these files to the judges, they look them over, and they determine whether or not they want to let [a defendant] out and whether or not they’ll have an ankle monitor,” Carswell explained.
The program uses two kinds of ankle monitors — Carswell said it’s been impossible to get enough of just one model — and they aren’t free. One, a model produced by a company called ScramNet, costs $8 per day, and the other, a model made by Securus Technologies, costs $10 per day.
Adams estimated that so far, about 85% of the program’s participants have been responsible for covering the cost themselves. The county and state have paid for monitors for the rest, who were deemed indigent. Adams said the courts’ criteria for indigence are simple: you have to have an empty jail commissary account, the account inmates use to buy extra food and supplies, or a court-appointed attorney paid for by the state or county, or both.
But those eligibility criteria don’t seem to be catching everybody who needs help. Brandon Ferrell, another officer on the pretrial team, said that some defendants responsible for their ankle monitor fees have struggled with the bills.
“That’s a big issue right now,” Ferrell said. “And it’s between the ankle monitor company and the client at that point. … But I can understand. I mean, $300 a month [in ankle monitor fees] is difficult.”
Rutledge wasn’t saddled with any such bills: The state had been paying for his ankle monitor.
But he said that his judge, Lauderback, encouraged him to find work — his job at a lawn care company was slow during the winter off-season — and Rutledge took the advice seriously. He cooked at a Popeyes in Johnson City until pandemic-induced layoffs forced him out, then found odd jobs until lawn care work took off in the spring.
Rutledge was so eager to stay out of jail, he said, that he followed the conditions of his release religiously. He said it helped that Adams, the main pretrial officer he reported to, didn’t seem to assume the worst about him.
“Anytime I would have to come in ... he always started off with, ‘How’re you doing, how’s your day?’ He’s very respectful,” Rutledge said of Adams. “Which is kind of surprising coming from [the fact that] he works at the Sullivan County jail, and a lot of the officers kind of look down on people there. I guess he saw me as a human being that just made a simple mistake.”
Carswell said that kind of dynamic is deliberate.
“What we try to do, more than anything, and what we’ve tried to push among the [staff] in our program, is ... coach these people,” he said. “We don’t just put them out and ... wait for them to screw up or violate. We try to coach them and push them in the right direction.”
Upon release, defendants in the program who struggle with addiction are given a list of local rehabilitation centers, and all of them are given a list of local companies that claim they will hire felons — the idea being that if they hire felons, they’ll hire pretrial defendants.
Carswell added that the jail is looking for ways to partner with community groups that could provide additional career training and other support to people in the program.
“The number one complaint I hear from inmates when they get out [of jail is that] they don’t know where to go, they don’t know where to get a job, how to get a job — but they do know how to sell drugs ... they go back to selling drugs ... till they get caught,” Carswell said. “And then they’ve got more time to serve.”
“We’re trying to slow that,” he added. “And I think the only way we’re going to slow that is by educating [and] giving opportunities to people.”
email@example.com | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @swadely
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.