Search for Washington County jail leadership to start soon

Becky Campbell • May 9, 2018 at 11:35 PM

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has needed to fill the top administrator position for the Detention Center, but with Maj. Brenda Downes’ win May 1 for the Circuit Court clerk’s job, the sheriff’s office now faces the process of finding a replacement.

Now that the election is over, Downes will take vacation time in the next few months to meet with Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn about the transition before taking office Sept. 1. Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen said administrators will begin meeting to discuss what they’re looking for in the next jail administrator. Those meetings will include Downes, she said.

Downes will also be involved in developing the Detention Center’s upcoming fiscal year budget and will continue her duties as usual. Laitinen said she hopes to have someone in place as jail administrator soon so as to ensure a smooth transition.

Downes was promoted to be the Detention Center leader in 1999, just a few years after the jail moved into its current location from the old courthouse in downtown Jonesborough. She made quick advancement in the department, starting as a jailer in 1993 and moving up through the ranks from platoon sergeant in 1994, platoon lieutenant in 1995 and captain/assistant jail administrator 1998.

It was a time of rapid growth for the Detention Center with dozens of new officers hired in those early years at the new facility. Her predecessor, Herb Edmondson, ran the jail the first four years after it opened, then retired. Downes was his assistant administrator as a captain, and then-Sheriff Fred Phillips promoted her to major. It was a big job for a 27-year-old, but Downes dove head-first into the work.

Before 1999, the Detention Center didn’t have a policy and procedure manual or an inmate information handbook. Downes led the effort to write and implement policies and procedures — something the jail never had before her tenure — that dictate how the jail operates and the rules by which jailers must abide.

Also since becoming major, Downes has helped identify financial needs of the jail and administer the multimillion-dollar budget.

Other accomplishments on Downes’ resume include:

• 2017: Successfully passed the first PREA Audit for WCDC

• 2016: Authored the new federally mandated PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) policy

• 2013: Appointed to the Washington County Recovery Drug Court Team

• 2012: Managed renovations to existing facility to increase certified capacity to 620

• 2009: Managed expansion of the jail from a capacity from 384 to 580

• 2006: Oversaw security upgrade at WCDC

• 1999: Developed and implemented Jail Policy and Procedures

• 1999: Put into operation the initial Inmate Handbook

She was also named Jail Administrator of the Year in 2015 by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.

“No, it won’t be easy to replace Brenda, but we’re confident we can find a competent leader to take over the Detention Center,” Laitinen said.

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