Rhea County Jail History

Rhea County Jail History

The feature photo above shows one of the cells from the 1998 addition of the jail. (Photo by Dean Wilson)

Old Rhea County Jail Downtown Now a Certified Juvenile Jail Facility

In March of this year, 2021, the county opened a new Rhea County Jail and Justice Center located on the property of the former Rhea Medical Center north of town.  This was the sixth time since the county was formed that a new jail has been built.

Rhea County was formed in1807. The first government meeting was held on the Henry farm located north of Dayton. In 1808, during the April session of the Quarterly Court, a committee to oversee and contract for building the county’s first jail. The new jail was to be 12 feet squared and 8 feet high and constructed of logs. The contract was awarded at a cost of $38.75 to Robert Gamble and construction was completed in late 1809. This location was used by the county government until a vote was made to locate the county seat to the Washington community.

On June 27, 1812, the board for the town of Washington decided that a new jail was needed and was to be built on the town square near the new courthouse. John Moore offered to build and furnish the jail for $338.00. He was awarded the contract when there were no lower bids. The jail was located on the Northeast corner of the public square. The new jail was opened during Sheriff Miller Francis' term in office.

In 1825, a petition signed by three hundred fifty citizens of Rhea County was submitted to the Tennessee State Legislature. This petition stated that the jail was not safe for keeping prisoners because of its bad condition, and that a new jail was desperately needed. On November 23, 1825, the Generally Assembly of Tennessee passed an act authorizing the Rhea County Court to pass a tax for the purpose of constructing a new jail at a cost of $1,583.50 in the town of Washington near the site of the old jail on the public square. The new jail was opened during Sheriff Woodson Francis' term in office.

In 1889, the county seat was moved from Washington to Dayton. With this move another Courthouse and Jail would be needed. In April of that same year, a committee was appointed to oversee the construction for the new jail in Dayton.  A contract was made with Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio to construct the new jail at a cost of $9,600.00. The new jail was to be constructed on a lot behind the future site of the new courthouse. The new jail was built to accommodate 60 prisoners and was completed by September 1, 1889. The new jail was opened during Sheriff W. Martin Brown’s term in office.

Old Rhea County Jail

This is the old jail that served from 1889 until 1961. This jail was located behind the courthouse where the vacant lot is today next to the Election Commission Office. This view of the jail  is facing 3rd Ave (Dean Wilson Photo Collection)

On April 14, 1961, open house was held on a new jail which replaced the turn of the century jail which had been criticized frequently by grand juries as being a fire trap. The $80,000 bid to construct the new jail was awarded to O.B. Davis Construction Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This new jail was to be located on a lot just south of the current jail located behind the Rhea Courthouse. The new jail would contain three sections with 18 regular cells. One section will house the Sheriff’s office, radio room, dormitory for jailers and deputies, a kitchen, and a records room. A special section was reserved for the insane and women prisoners.  The new jail was opened during Sheriff J.W. “Bill” Vaughn’s term in office. The old jail was demolished shortly after this new jail opened. In 1998, Sheriff Leon Sneed added an addition onto the jail enlarging its capacity.

In August of 2017, the Rhea County Commission voted to move forth with the construction of a new Rhea County Jail and Justice Center. The old jail had been faced with severe overcrowding conditions for many years.

During the early summer of 2017, The Rhea County Sheriff’s Department began working to depopulate the county jail by the Aug. 27 deadline. A date that the state declared the county jail population must be reduced to its certified 80-bed capacity or face losing its certification.

The new 94,000 square ft.  Jail and Justice Center was completed coming in at approximately $500,000 under the projected construction bid of $23M. The new facility includes county courts, a new jail and new offices for the sheriff’s department as well as other court offices.

On Sunday, February 28, 2021, the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department securely moved all of the incarcerated inmates from the old jail downtown into the new justice center.

For the next five months, the old jail then underwent a complete deep cleaning from top to bottom, complete with pressure washing of the concrete areas of the building both inside and out. Plumbing and electrical repairs were made prior to the entire interior portions of the building being repainted. All of the work was preformed by jail trustee’s which helped keep the cost to a minimum. In August of 2021, the old jail received certification to be opened and used as a Juvenile Jail facility, which is certified to house no more than 30 juveniles at a time.

The new jail was opened, and the old jail renovated during Sheriff Mike Neal’s term in office. Sheriff Neal is also the nephew of former Sheriff Vaughn who opened the last constructed jail in 1961.



Once the jail was vacated, clean-up of the building was commenced. The photos above show one of the cells from the 1961 portion of the jail "before and after" the clean-up  in 2021. (Photos By Dean Wilson)


Take A Video Tour Of The New Jail And Justice Center Below.


Published byDean

Born and raised in Dayton Tennessee, I have served in various public service positions in the past. I have a great interest in the History of our town. This site is a way for me to share some of the great history of the area.

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