Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond was defiant Thursday as he responded at a news conference to complaints that his department has presided over incidents involving violence among inmates at the Silverdale Detention Center and violence involving deputies against members of the public.
Earlier this week, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston announced he would request a U.S. Department of Justice probe into incidents of use of force by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and its operation of the jail.
"As sheriff of this county, my job is to protect the lives of my officers first, the citizens of this community second and the inmates third," Hammond said Thursday morning from the Sheriff's Conference Room at the Hamilton County Courts Building."
"There are those who think that once you're locked up you have to be given the same rights as when you're outside," he said. "That's not true."
Hammond said he has faced serious staffing issues at Silverdale and was given only six months to prepare to take over control of the facility when private operator CoreCivic pulled out of its contract to run the jail after 35 years.
He held up mugshots of some of the inmates held in the jail.
"Weekly, our officers conduct sweeps of the jail," Hammond said as he held up a photo of contraband placed in evidence bags. "Someone claimed that he was stabbed 17 times, but most of them are pokes and pricks," he added, saying he doesn't mean to minimize the injuries but to say how it is.
Meanwhile, the sheriff said he was "somewhat disappointed" in Pinkston.
"I can count in one hand the amount of times he has been in my office, and he has never been out there [Silverdale]," Hammond said.
He added he has visited and spoken with judges who understand the difficulties he's faced in taking over operations at Silverdale.
He also said that since the sheriff's office took the facility over, it has had to accept federal inmates and host job fairs for inmates.
"It's hard to find a job when you decide to decorate your body with this," he said as he held up a photo of a man's torso covered with tattoos. "We have a large number of gang members."
The sheriff highlighted what he called a crisis in recruiting and retention of good sheriff's deputies.
"It's hard finding officers," he said, citing a tight budget. "I'm going to have to fight to find a budget to find people."
Hammond said his department looks into "every allegation, every complaint."
"I take it as a little bit of a slap in the face that the district attorney has asked the [Department of Justice] to conduct an investigation," he said.
Hammond concluded by noting that on Aug. 30, he will retire and a new sheriff will take over.
He has endorsed Chief Deputy Austin Garrett, who announced in October he would run to fill his boss's seat after his retirement. Garrett is the lone candidate to qualify to run for the position.
Pinkston's call for the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation was precipitated in part by a number of recent complaints about the department, including three lawsuits filed on April 15 against the Sheriff's Office and Silverdale by former inmates who claimed to have been stabbed multiple times while at the jail.
Also at issue is a recent traffic stop in which a Collegedale police officer used a stun gun on a Black man he had pulled over for speeding.
The district attorney had asked the Sheriff's Office to look into the incident, but following a request by a local clergy group, Pinkston withdrew that request and instead asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into it, while also asking the department to look into complaints about Silverdale.
Shortly after Hammond's news conference Thursday morning, Pinkston's office issued a response.
"It was the Chattanooga Clergy for Justice that made that request in a letter to me," the emailed statement said. "So I honored their concerns by withdrawing my request for the HCSO to investigate that traffic stop, and include it with my request for the Department of Justice to investigate that incident, along with the Silverdale Detention Center."