Chattanooga attorneys raise concerns over lack of COVID-19 precautions at Silverdale Detention Center; warden removed

Silverdale Detention Center is shown in this 2017 staff file photo. / Staff file photo

As local attorneys raise concerns about the Silverdale Detention Center's lack of precautions during the COVID-19 outbreak, the jail's warden David Sexton was removed recently without explanation from CoreCivic, the private prison operator that has managed the detention center since 1984.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said he asked for Sexton's removal due to having "no confidence" in continuing to work "with the warden they had," but claimed his concerns were "not at all" related to the COVID-19 response. Hammond had already voiced concerns about the warden before the virus' arrival in Hamilton County, he said, but added that he couldn't comment on CoreCivic's reason for moving Sexton.

In an email, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said Sexton is "taking on a new role with the company." When pressed further, she said he "will serve in an advisory role providing assistance at other correctional facilities in the company."

She did not respond to multiple requests to clarify the reason behind the move.

"I've provided responsive information regarding Warden Sexton and you have the extent of our comments at this time," she said. "We'll have an acting warden until such time as a replacement has been named."

Gilchrist confirmed the acting warden is James Deal.

"I just don't think they were singing on the same page of music we were," Hammond said of Sexton's leadership. "And since [Silverdale] does fall under me for supervision, I felt like I needed some new leadership out there to sit down and make sure that we could all be on the same piece of music around the table."

He said his concerns had to do with a variety of issues, including manpower, program management and "the complaints the courts were getting" - something upon which he did not elaborate, but clarified that there was no "accusation that he had done something illegal or immoral."

While Hammond said his concerns with Sexton had nothing to do with the coronavirus response, some local attorneys have raised red flags about a lack of precautions being taken at Silverdale.

"Nobody was wearing masks. Nobody was wearing gloves," said attorney Stephanie Rogers, who recently visited a client housed at Silverdale.

Another attorney, Brandy Spurgin-Floyd, said one of her clients reported seeing similar issues: Only a couple of jail staffers were seen wearing gloves and no sanitizers were being used.

"They're not following even normal standards to make sure that the place is clean or sanitized," Rogers said. "One of the attorneys' rooms was full of water. The entire floor, the table and chair were soaked with water. It wasn't blocked off. There were big buckets catching water in the lobby area."

Rogers did take her concerns to sheriff's office officials, who were very responsive, she said.

And Hammond insisted the downtown jail and Silverdale are both "doing everything that is legally required and humanly possible to go the extra mile in protecting those prisoners and to protect the public from what may happen."

At the downtown jail, for example, the sheriff's office has developed an on-site quarantine plan for inmates should they test positive for COVID-19.

"This plan was developed after consulting with Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and Erlanger health personnel and [they do] not require a facility with recycled air," spokesman Matt Lea said in an email.

"We've got a real powder keg when it comes to a correctional facility, whether it's the jail or whether it's Silverdale," Hammond said. "The type of people you house in there already are at risk, health wise. We need to have extra measures in place to protect them and to protect the public."

CoreCivic, however, would have to come up with its own plan. And it has. In a corporate news release, the company said it has a "medical action plan," which includes having medical staff participate in the intake process to identify those who are deemed at high risk of contracting the virus and then isolating those people.

But Rogers said staffers there told her they had not been issued any masks or gloves.

"That place, a jail, could be the epicenter of an outbreak," she said. "They need to be taking it seriously, and it was clear that they weren't."

Her greatest concern, she said, is her client reporting that inmates hadn't been informed about the coronavirus pandemic, something Spurgin-Floyd also noted.

"They're learning from family members over the phone or from people newly brought into the facilities who are trying to tell everybody what's going on," Rogers said.

"'People are coming in here and talking about it and scaring everyone,'" her client told her.

Spurgin-Floyd said her client had the same concerns and that jail staff had not warned inmates to take extra precautions.

Hammond, however, said that was not true.

"They have access to television just like you and I every day," he said. "They know exactly what's going on. In fact, they're the ones who are requesting the supplies to clean their own cells."

"Anything you're hearing is speculation at this time. I can tell you nobody is saying, 'Hey, we're not going to wear masks. We're not going to wear gloves.'"

And while Silverdale operates separately from the downtown jail, Hammond said they "have not shown me anything that says that they're sitting down on their hands."

"I think they're like [the downtown jail]," he said. "They're doing everything they can with what they've got to work with."

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