Some inmates at the Greene County Detention Center don’t have to go any further than the jail recreation area to be arraigned by General Sessions Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr.
The recently introduced video arraignment system helps reduce courtroom overcrowding, reduces potential security concerns and is more efficient for corrections officers and deputies who bring inmates over to the courthouse.
Implementing the video arraignment system was one goal of Circuit Court Clerk Chris Shepard when he took office in 2018. It is one of his efforts at the courthouse to help streamline services to citizens.
Reviews are uniformly good for the video conferencing system.
“I think that it helps us in a couple of ways. First, we have fewer inmates being brought up to the courtroom just to be taken back,” Bailey said.
Arraignments typically take Bailey about four minutes, so the system saves time for the court, corrections officers and those in custody.
“It’s good for security purposes,” Bailey said. “Monday morning, we had 46 inmates brought up to the courtroom. It really helps with the security and the time it takes having to be brought up.”
Only felony cases are currently heard via video arraignment. Pleas cannot be taken by video, Bailey said.
“I feel like it is working pretty well,” he said.
In November 2018, the state Administrative Office of the Courts awarded Greene County a Court Security Grant of $14,143 Shepard applied for after taking office. The system has been used in some neighboring counties, and in February, Shepard and others who work in the court system visited Dandridge, where video arraignments have been in use in Jefferson County for several years.
Shepard and the others liked what they saw.
“It was super-efficient,” he said.
Wiring for the Greene County system was completed in March. The video arraignment system was installed in April in the General Sessions courtroom and recreation area of the jail.
“Judge Bailey uses the system each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This system also allows the judge to arraign an individual from any location that has internet, should that need arise,” Shepard said this week.
He said the state grant provided money for a steel enclosure to house the video system at the jail to protect it when unattended.
Others stepped in to help.
“The cost of the enclosure through the provider was $2,600. I knew we could build something just as secure, but for a lot less money. I contacted Sheriff (Wesley) Holt, and he said maintenance could build an enclosure,” Shepard said. “I told maintenance what I needed, and they built a more than adequate cabinet to house the video system for about $200.”
Shepard said the savings left over were used to install wiring that cost $1,600.
“The rest of what we saved was used to pay for three years of subscription to the video service. We were also able to add video arraignments to the workhouse jail facility on Summer Street with money we saved by building our own enclosure,” Shepard said.
The workhouse setup “should be up and going by August,” he said.
Shepard said there are many positives to the video arraignment system.
“The main benefit is safety. Safety for the public and court staff, and also safety for the individuals being arraigned,” he said.
Accessibility is another issue.
“An individual in a wheelchair was video arraigned the other day. This is a huge benefit for corrections officers, and those charged with an offense, because there is no easy way for an individual with mobility issues to get to court from the jail and back,” Shepard said. “Corrections officers have to push the individual up the hill on Depot Street and enter at the front of the courthouse. Then, back down to the jail when court is over.”
With video arraignment, “We can keep those individuals inside for their initial arraignment, and corrections officers don’t have to leave other duties to transport inmates to court.”
Bailey said courtroom overcrowding is alleviated by fewer inmates being in the courtroom.
“It’s cut down on the numbers of people in the courtroom just sitting around. When defendants are sitting in the courtroom, the family (stays),” he said.
Corrections Officer Brad Kiker works with Shepard to coordinate video arraignments.
“This has been a great way to get people in and out faster than taking them to court,” Kiker said.
Chief Deputy David Beverly was at the jail Monday as arraignments were being conducted.
“When you are moving them from the jail to the courthouse, there’s always the safety factor,” Beverly said.
Shepard said that on court days, he and Kiker “have an efficient routine in place that helps the video docket run smooth for the judge each morning.”
“This process starts about 6:30 each morning when I arrive at work to pick up and sign warrants. I pick out the individuals that will be arraigned by video and send those names to the jail by text or call. Corrections officers get those inmates ready and brought up to the camera and monitor on the jail side,” Shepard said. “I go to the courtroom and get everything up and going for Judge Bailey around 7:30 a.m. When he starts court at 8:30, everything is ready for him.”
Bailey agreed that other uses for the video arraignment system can be determined as court officials familiarize themselves with it. He presides over domestic violence-related cases and is also Juvenile Court judge.
“We will meet with the district attorney and victim (advocates). There are things we might try on a trial basis,” he said. “It’s all about time.”
“I’ve been very pleased with it. It’s definitely been worthwhile to implement it and I’m excited about other possibilities we can use it for,” Bailey said.
It took a team effort to make the video arraignment system work, Shepard said.
“Many hours of calls, meetings and deadlines were met to get this done. The deadline for submission was just four days after I took office, so I began working on it well before being sworn in,” he said.
He said the support of others helped make the proposal a reality, including Bailey, Holt, county Mayor Kevin Morrison, jail Administrator Roger Willett, courthouse security chief Lt. Charles Morelock, the Greene County Commission, the county Purchasing Department and taxpayers.
The grant has had other unexpected benefits including “the networking and team building of all parties involved,” Shepard said.
“Greene County has a new sheriff, court clerk, mayor, and lots of new commissioners. This Court Security Grant has brought all these offices and individuals together, and each one of them has stepped up to the plate in grand fashion to help me get this arraignment system in place,” he said.
A story that unfolded in Oregon earlier this month has become an all-too-common refrain in bear country across the United States.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported shooting a young black bear after state officials said the animal had become so comfortable with humans that people could take selfies with the 100-pound male. Tourists, as well as members of the community, had been feeding the bear for weeks – a reality that ultimately forced wildlife officials to execute the bear.
It’s stories like this one that helped prompt the Cherokee National Forest to issue a reminder of a 2017 order aimed at limiting bear and human interaction throughout the region.
The order notes that those on picnic and camping trips must properly store food and ultimately dispose of garbage.
“With the coming of summer more people visit the national forest to enjoy nature,” wrote the Cherokee National Forest’s Terry McDonald. “Many people leave food out in the open or do not dispose of refuse properly. These actions become the source of most bear and human problems.”
While feeding a bear might make for an exciting post on social media, such behavior almost always sets a bear on a fatal path. As a bear comes to rely on human food sources, the animal often slowly but steadily begins to lose its fear of people. That pattern frequently ends in the demise of a bear either by a wildlife official or frightened landowner or camper.
Such encounters bring into sharp focus questions that some communities and states have been increasingly wrestling with as urbanization grows alongside spikes in bear numbers. Where do the rights of bears to forage and hunt end? When does a human have the right to kill a bear?
These questions will likely only grow given that the black bear population has steadily risen across northeast Tennessee and Greene County over the last several decades, state records show.
“Occasional interactions,” notes a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency report on black bears, “will be unavoidable.”
Those who work with wildlife have witnessed the fallout of improper bear and human relationships.
“Sometimes we receive bears when mother bears create conflict and must be moved or euthanized. We also can receive cubs when mother bears venture into towns and cities looking for an ‘easy’ meal,” said Dana Dodd, executive director of the Townsend-based Appalachian Bear Rescue. “Mothers and sometimes whole families are hit by vehicles as they travel into human territory in search of easy food.”
Some of those bears came from Greene County.
“We believe that humans must take the responsibility to make smart choices if humans and bears are to stay safe. When we live in, play in or visit bear country, we are responsible for making smart choices,” said Dodd. “From birth, bears are driven to find food. When they eat natural foods, humans and bears are generally safe from conflict.”
She added: “Bears are opportunistic and will eat any food they can find, (including) human trash, bird seed, hummingbird nectar, pet food left outside, your picnic lunch, food left in an unlocked vehicle. When bears are attracted to human food sources, conflict is almost inevitable.”
Wildlife agencies, including the TWRA, Appalachian Bear Rescue and the Cherokee National Forest Service, offer a range of tips to minimize such conflict. Some of those include:
A Greene County Detention Center inmate who walked off a maintenance detail about 10 a.m. Friday was apprehended about five hours later.
Wesley Lynn Holt, 32, of 357 Union Chapel Road, was serving a sentence for misdemeanor violations, a sheriff’s department news release said.
Holt was picked up about 3 p.m. Friday on Horse Creek Road in Washington County.
He was charged with escape and will appear Monday on the charge in General Sessions Court.
Holt is not related to Sheriff Wesley Holt.