Justice center

Rhea County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy John Argo inspects progress on the Rhea County Justice Center on Thursday. While COVID-19 did disrupt construction earlier this year, the facility is expected to be completed later this year.

With an original completion date set for November 2020, Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said on Thursday that the project is currently on track to come in under budget.

However, Neal noted that while construction has resumed at the site, construction was shut down for two weeks earlier this year.

“COVID has been a small issue for us,” Neal said. “We’ve also had contractors have to stay home for the 14-day period if they came into contact with someone with COVID.”

Still, Neal said that any delay in completion caused by the pandemic will likely be only minor.

The new justice center will be located at the corner of Rhea County Highway and Walnut Grove Church Road and will be able to house 275 inmates as well as county courtrooms. The current Rhea County Jail is certified to house only 88 inmates.

Neal said that the new facility is designed in such a way that inmates will not be able to interact with the public, solving one of the main security issues with the current jail and courthouse. Currently, inmates must walk from the jail across a public parking lot and across Court Street to the Rhea County Courthouse.

“Inmates will be able to go from their cell to courthouse without going out in public,” Neal said.

The same is true for judges’ offices, Neal said. The design of the new justice center utilizes hallways that are sealed off from the general public that will allow judges to go from their offices to the courtroom without having to go out into the public.

Additionally, the justice center will contain the various court clerk offices but will also house a new emergency operations center for Rhea County Emergency Management.

Neal said that the justice center will also have additional empty office space that can be rented out to state probation offices and other agencies. He said that the Tennessee Highway Patrol has already committed to renting three office spaces at the new facility.

“[The justice center] will be highly secure at 100 times better than what we have now,” Neal said. “We have all new plumbing and electrical in the old nursing home section, so that won’t be a problem for awhile. We also have room to expand by 100 inmates should we ever need to.”

The jail section of the justice center will also have new features, Neal said, including video visitation, an expanded nursing station and kitchen, as well as a classroom to facilitate inmate education and rehabilitation.