Neither snow nor sleet nor rain is presently deterring the Knox County Sheriff's Department from releasing men and women from jail in the middle of the night in front of the City/County building. Just how many people who have been incarcerated are being left to fend for themselves in this inhumane manner is well nigh impossible to determine.
In their typically hapless, or at least unhelpful, way the Sheriff's spokespeople can't even say how many prisoners are being freed over any given period of time, let alone where they are being released or at what hours of the day or night.
â“Some days we release five to 10 people, some days 50,â” is as far as sheriff's spokesperson Ashley Carrigan is able or willing to go. She acknowledges that releases are a 24/7 proposition, but she can't shed any light on the nature of the offenses of the people involved or how many of them are dumped off in front of the City/County building.
Prior to their release from the sheriff's detention facility on Maloneyville Road in East Knox County, the incarcerated are allowed to make a phone call to arrange for someone to pick them up there. But among those jailed for public drunkenness, erratic behavior, or just plain vagrancy, the proportion who are able to make such arrangements is believed to be low.
These are the substance abusers and/or mentally ill who comprise a large part of the jail's population and whose conditions are prime contributors to homelessness. Carrigan postulates that releasing them at the City/County building avoids â“having them just wandering around on Maloneyvilleâ” and affords them access to public transportation. But there are no buses running in the middle of the night, and the nearest source of shelter, the Knox Area Rescue Ministries on Broadway, is more than a mile away.
A big part of the ballyhooed Knoxville and Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness is â“the development of a comprehensive and assertive outreach teamâ” whose goal will be â“to provide an integrated, comprehensive, client-centered resource focused on placing homeless individuals into housing first and then into appropriate treatment programs.â” Surely, reaching out to people who are being released from jail should be a part of that effort, but such is not the case yet.
Bruce Spangler, who is chief operating officer of the Volunteer Ministry Center, coordinates a task force that meets every two weeks to develop plans and assign responsibilities for meeting this goal. The community's two leading providers of mental health services, Helen Ross McNabb Center and Cherokee Health Systems, are front and center on the task force along with agencies concerned with providing shelter and other services to the homeless such as KARM and VMC. The Knoxville Police Department is also represented, but the Sheriff's Department is not.
Spangler says, â“We'd like to have a presence at the detention center, but the dots haven't been connected, and the sheriff's office is not at the table.â” Small world that it is, Bruce Spangler is the brother of Chief Deputy Sheriff Ed Spangler, so connecting the dots wouldn't seem all that difficultâ"though it's less clear where the funding will come from to augment outreach efforts to encompass all the previously and prospectively homeless people being released from jail.
It's not as if the sheriff's office is unconscious of the plight of the mentally ill for whom the detention center has become a holding pen given the dearth of hospitalization or other residential treatment facilities. The sheriff's office contracts extensively with the McNabb Center for treatment of detainees, and its president, Andy Black, comes to the defense of the sheriff.
â“The jails didn't become mental hospitals out of choice, and they are doing the best they can to bring mental health services to the jail,â” Black asserts. â“They are doing what they are supposed to do and then some, and it's not their fault how people are released.â”
The release issue begs the question of whether people with frequently intertwined mental health and substance abuse problems should have been jailed in the first place. A lot of lip service is paid to judicial diversion programs, but Black says, â“the dilemma is that no one pays for that.â” And he notes that McNabb's Center Pointe alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility, with 1,100 beds, has a months-long waiting list. Nor has the Ten-Year Planâ"with its emphasis on housing firstâ"yet developed many residential units where homeless people leaving jail could be placed, let alone have a case manager assigned to them as the plan prescribes.
It's incumbent on the Ten-Year Plan's recently named director Jon Lawler to come up with solutions sooner rather than later. And the practice of dumping people released from jail onto the streets in the middle of the night, especially in mid-winter, should stop post haste. â" Joe Sullivan
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