District attorney to ask Department of Justice to investigate Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Silverdale

Chattanooga Clergy for Justice pushed for inquiry into use of force incidents at the detention center

Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / A van is received by a guard at Silverdale Detention Center on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston committed Monday afternoon to requesting a U.S. Department of Justice probe into incidents of use of force by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and its operation of Silverdale Detention Center.

"Right now, it appears that Silverdale is one of the most dangerous places to be in our county, and that is unacceptable," Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said in a news release Monday. "Individuals at Silverdale have the right to be protected, and that right should be taken very seriously by every member of our justice system. Therefore, I will formally request that the DOJ investigate the conditions and operation of Silverdale."

The DA said he would withdraw his previous request for the sheriff's office to investigate a traffic stop in Collegedale in which a bystander recorded video of a Black man being shocked repeatedly by a Collegedale police officer with a stun gun following a traffic stop, saying he would instead ask the Department of Justice to look into that incident.

The announcement came after Chattanooga Clergy for Justice issued a letter calling on Pinkston to push for the investigation.

In its letter, the group said the sheriff's office's oversight of Silverdale had "led to deaths and reports of severe neglect, abuse and excessive use of force."

"We feel that the [Hamilton County Sheriff's Office] cannot complete an unbiased investigation of the incident," the clergy group's release said.

There have been three rapes reported at Silverdale so far this year, according to the sheriff's office. One man was allegedly raped so severely in mid-March he had to be released to a mental health facility, according to court records. In late March, a female inmate was allegedly raped by another female inmate as she shared a bed with her because she said she didn't have a bed or mat of her own. Over the Easter weekend, another man was reportedly raped and beaten.

On April 15, three lawsuits were filed by former inmates against Hamilton County and Sheriff Jim Hammond.

Two of the lawsuits allege that the plaintiffs were pushed into cells known to house violent inmates by correctional officers armed with stun guns and shotguns loaded with bean-bag shells. One plaintiff alleges being stabbed 17 times, while the other claimed to be stabbed six times.

Another plaintiff alleged officers failed to close his cell door at night, resulting in him being beaten and stabbed nine times.

All three lawsuits allege Hammond failed to properly train, discipline and supervise the behavior of the deputies within Silverdale, putting the sheriff's office in direct violation of the defendant's Eighth and 14th Amendment rights.

In a livestreamed news conference, Chattanooga Clergy for Justice Pastor Terry Ladd said his request for the involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice came after complaints by inmates and complaints from members of the community alleging abuse of their loved ones while being detained at Silverdale.

"We just ask that the Department of Justice take the evidence from the jail and from those statements," Ladd said, "and just find out what's going on in the jail."

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Ladd said he previously sent a letter to the Department of Justice in 2021 requesting an investigation.

"This is not just a 'fly by night' request," Ladd added, saying the clergy group has been requesting Silverdale be investigated for more than a decade.

Ladd also said he had requested to meet with Hammond to review the conditions and allegations of abuse within Silverdale but the request was denied.

"We hope that when the Department of Justice handles this investigation that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office does what we've been asking them to do for several years, which is to sit down with the community and discuss the best uses of their policy and training of their officers."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.