Hamilton County Jail seeks more money from Tennessee to house state inmates

Hamilton County Jail seeks more money from Tennessee to house state inmates

December 18th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

An unidentified Hamilton County inmate waits to be re-admitted to his holding cell on the second floor of the Hamilton County Jail.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Jail

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

Sheriff Jim Hammond says Tennessee should pay Hamilton County more for housing state inmates -- but lawmakers say it will be a tough year to get more dough out of Nashville.

The county is responsible for housing, feeding and securing defendants who are awaiting trial in Hamilton County. Once convicted, inmates are technically in state custody, but they don't all get sent to state prison immediately. Some stay in the county jail for extended periods of time, and that gets costly, Hammond said.

"What they are giving us is about $40 a day, and what it costs us is about $80 a day," Hammond said. "We're spending about $75,000 a day on average. ... If we had more out of the state, that would certainly help offset that cost."

But state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, says he's not too hopeful about increasing the state prisoner per diem.

"I suspect this year the budget is going to be tight. The numbers are coming in lower than we budgeted for," McCormick said. "Unless the revenues come in and are better than we are anticipating, it will be a tough sell."

Tennessee pays $37 per prisoner per day to Hamilton County. McCormick says that's up from 2012, when the state paid only $35. But it still isn't the $70 per day the federal government pays the jail for housing federal inmates -- and that doesn't cover the costs, either.

County Finance Administrator Louis Wright said, according to state formulas, it costs the county $81 per prisoner per day at the jail and $47 per prisoner per day at Silverdale.

That means each state prisoner in county lockup is costing taxpayers $44 a day. State prisoners in Silverdale cost county taxpayers $10 a day.

Hammond says it costs a lot to police the jail because it's a large operation that requires many employees.

"We're very labor intensive as you can imagine. The biggest part of our budget is salaries and benefits," Hammond said.

Hammond couldn't give a fixed number for how many state prisoners the county holds on a regular basis, because he said it fluctuates daily.

But in 2013, the state paid $780,219 for housing state inmates at the jail and $1.1 million for prisoners at the Silverdale Correctional Facility. The jail's operational budget was $10.9 million. And in the same year, $24.8 million of Hammond's $26 million budget was appropriated from the county general fund, according to finance records.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger appealed to lawmakers to have the per diem raised, because he says it's a costly burden.

But this isn't just a Hamilton County problem.

State Department of Correction spokeswoman Cindy Dunning said in an email Tuesday that Hamilton County is one of 89 local governments that receive the $37 per diem for housing state prisoners. It's the maximum payment under the annual appropriation act, she said. But three local governments receive less money, and three -- Johnson City, Davidson County and Shelby County -- receive more.

Dunning said each county has an individual contract with the Department of Correction and the contract amounts were not immediately available Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.