Silverdale As Jail Site Makes Sense

An inmate walks across the yard inside at the Silverdale correctional facility, located on Standifer Gap Road in East Brainerd.

Read more

Hamilton County mayor wants to escape from incarceration business

Sheriff Jim Hammond knows he risks sounding like a broken record when he advocates a new jail for Hamilton County, but that's a chance he's willing to take.

He first cites grand jury reports going back more than a decade which point to the "deplorable situation" at the current jail, but it's clear he agrees. The 39-year-old, six-story Walnut Street building's linear construction, he says, "is labor intensive to manage" and will continue to require more money for upkeep.

Trends in jails today, Hammond says, are one or two stories at the most, which allow for better supervision.

So it makes sense at the same time Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger says the county is considering selling its Silverdale workhouse facility to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which runs it, that the county also consider having CCA build and operate a new jail.

In the near future, Coppinger says he will ask the County Commission to pay for a six-figure study by the PFM consulting firm on both the sale of Silverdale and on the possibility of a new jail.

If Hammond had his druthers, the jail would move out of downtown, an idea that has taken hold in cities across the country, from Baltimore to Napa, Calif.

"As I travel to different jurisdictions," he says, "the move is to put the jail in an outside [downtown] area." Downtown jails are a "nightmare for visitation" and parking, and "you're in the high-rent district."

One of scenarios the consulting firm is likely to study, should it get the money, is building a new jail at the Silverdale facility. There is plenty of room there, and the area is already secure.

Hammond says he's not advocating "for or against" such an idea, but he acknowledges the "footprint is big enough."

If that is the recommendation of such a study, the sheriff said several things need to be considered:

* Silverdale is between 12 and 15 miles, depending on the route, from the Courts Building on Market Street. Transportation for visitation could present a problem for some people, but the advent of video visitation -- where family members could visit with their loved one from the comfort of their home -- would help alleviate that.

* It might be wise to have some of the courts -- General Sessions Court would make the most sense -- adjoining such a justice center.

* Any future privately run county jail must, by law, be overseen by the sheriff. That's different from the Silverdale workhouse facility, which is run by CCA but is overseen not by Hammond but by the county mayor and other county officials. For his part, his department's relationship with CCA has been "excellent," but whether it's saved the taxpayers money," he says, "I'll defer to the mayor."

* Although CCA might run such a facility in the future, the careers of the 130-140 people working at the current jail must be protected. Some have put in 15 to 25 years there, and their employment would need to be grandfathered into any agreement. With a high turnover in the full staff, though, CCA would have "plenty of opportunities to hire their own people."

The cost for a new jail away from downtown, according to Hammond, is likely to equal the cost of a "large new school." In Hamilton County, East Hamilton Middle/High School was built for $42.2 million in 2009, while East Brainerd Elementary and Ganns Middle Valley Elementary schools -- both under construction -- are expected to have final price tags of $23 million and $29 million, respectively.

Retrofitting the current jail, or finding available downtown property to build a new one, "is throwing good money after bad," he said. The public is unlikely to want a new downtown jail, and the current building could be converted into office space.

Talk of a new jail, of a CCA-run jail, of locations and of costs are all preliminary, however. If the county mayor was to ask the County Commission to fund the study next week and the commission to give the go-ahead, a new justice facility still would be four to six years in the future, the sheriff said.

Proactive counties get ahead of the problem. Ours may not be ahead of the problem since the county jail routinely holds 550 to 600 prisoners in a jail rated for 500, and has for a while, but a study is a start. Immediate action and collaboration are even smarter since the current jail situation is not likely to improve. And the Silverdale site may not be the perfect solution for a new jail, but it offers a number of pluses that may not be found elsewhere.