After nearly three months of Silverdale Detention Center inmates using paper forms for filing grievances, medical requests and commissary orders after private jail operator CoreCivic's pulled out from the facility, new electronic kiosks have been installed at the jail.
The grievance forms were often used to complain about COVID-19 safety protocols as pandemic infections surged in Hamilton County.
The sheriff's office took over operations at Silverdale on Dec. 31, six months after Nashville-based CoreCivic announced it would be cutting ties with the county after 30 years.
Since Dec. 30, grievances and other requests had to be filed in paper form, sheriff's office general counsel Coty Wamp said in a recent email. Electronic kiosks have remained active at the downtown jail.
"This cumbersome process, although acceptable, required additional support and efforts by corrections personnel to gather, review and respond to each inmate grievance or request filed," sheriff's office spokesperson Matt Lea said in a news release Wednesday.
Now, each housing unit has at least one kiosk.
"By installing these new digital kiosks throughout our Silverdale facility, we are offering a better, more efficient way to address inmate requests and concerns in a fair and equitable manner," Sheriff Jim Hammond said in a statement.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Austin Garrett added that the electronic system "creates an atmosphere of accountability and supports the needs of our inmate population. Installing this new system allows for improved transparency at the Silverdale Detention Center at a level that was previously not available."
The sheriff's office explained grievances can be filed by inmates to report safety issues, incompatibility matters with other inmates, complaints or any other concerns they may have regarding their incarceration.
For example, in November, kiosks at the downtown jail were used to file 241 complaints, according to records obtained by the Times Free Press. Of those, at least 29 were related to concerns over a lack of COVID-19 protocols.
A request to CoreCivic for the same information netted zero grievances related to COVID-19 filed at Silverdale during the month of November.
The jails' populations fluctuate on a daily basis, but at the end of November, there were 501 inmates at the downtown jail and 783 at Silverdale, according to the state's jail summary report.
November was one of the deadliest months for the coronavirus in Hamilton County.
The sheriff's office has defended itself against repeated accusations of failing to follow protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19, noting that it has been "continuing to work with health department and Erlanger Medical personnel to safeguard the health of our inmates and personnel due to COVID-19. This includes testing employees and inmates who show signs or symptoms of COVID-19."
Since the sheriff's office began testing some people in its custody in April 2020, 57 inmates had tested positive as of Wednesday, according to data provided by the department. That's out of 1,025 tests.
One person said people were contracting the virus while at the jail, "everyone on the second floor is having [COVID-19] symptoms," and "staff is bringing it to the inmates."
"Our medical providers stay in contact with the health department and ensure that we are taking every precaution to prevent the spread of COVID," a lieutenant responded.
Another person asked why inmates did not have access to disinfectants and masks.
"I've been up here going on two months and only got to mop my floor once" due to jail staff not having cleaning supplies in the "cleaning box," wrote another. "We're going through a nationwide pandemic, there should be double the cleaning materials instead of half to none of the materials, this is becoming an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed."
A corporal responded, saying he made sure the cleaning boxes had been refilled while working his shift.
One man wrote, in part, "I want to know why the hell have this pod been placed on quarantine, without me being tested again."
"Grievance not answered due to foul/inappropriate language," medical staff responded.
The exchanges were edited by the Times Free Press, but only to correct spelling.
Sheriff's spokesperson Matt Lea said that, because the downtown jail's medical personnel are contracted and staffed by Erlanger Medical Center, the sheriff's office "cannot speak for why Erlanger personnel chose not to address the grievance."
Lea pointed to a page in the jail's inmate handbook that asks inmates to not include "foul or obscene language" in requests.
"While this is a grievance and not a request, we can only assume that is the portion of the handbook to which the responder was referring," Lea said.
On Wednesday, the sheriff's office declined to comment on the concerns raised in the grievances, instead pointing to the several comments made throughout the pandemic detailing the preventative steps taken to reduce the spread of the virus.
In March, Lea said the jail implemented enhanced screenings at intake, such as asking whether arrestees had recently traveled to any affected areas.
"We continue to encourage hand washing and have provided more than normal cleaning supplies for the inmate population," he said at the time.
When the first inmate tested positive in late April, Lea said, "Sheriff Jim Hammond would like to reassure the public and those who may have family or friends incarcerated in the jail that our personnel are maintaining extraordinary measures to routinely sanitize the facility."
In May, Hammond was responding to a local activist group's concerns that hand sanitizer and masks were not being provided to inmates, saying the jail wasn't providing masks "because we're still behind the loop in getting enough."
"The prisoners won't wear 'em," he said at the time. "You can get one or two to wear 'em, most of them take 'em off and throw 'em in the garbage can. You cannot force them to wear them, so that's just a waste of time to do that."
By late November and in response to several questions by the Times Free Press, spokesperson Rachel Frizzell said all inmates were being provided with masks at intake and replenished upon request. Cleaning supplies were provided upon request. And staff was spraying disinfectant "at a minimum twice a week."