Opinion: Silverdale, Tennessee detention costs are complicated, especially by politics

Last week, Hamilton County Commissioners got a visit from Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was holding his hand out again, this time for a $6.5 million budget increase that would primarily go toward the recruitment and retention of qualified corrections officers.

This just after the commission in March - just two months ago - unanimously approved nearly $6.3 million in upgrades to Silverdale's security system.

In last Wednesday's meeting, Hammond and Ron Bernard, his staff and recruitment director, told commissioners the department simply can't hire and keep enough officers and jailers. Since January 2021 the office has hired 91 people but lost 101 to either retirement or higher-paying jobs. Hammond's request would increase the pay for correction officers from $18.27 an hour to $23.08 an hour.

It also brings the Sheriff's Office total budget request to $67 million.

But it's complicated. The new requests also come of the heels of CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, announcing in July 2020 that it would pull out of Hamilton County at the end of the year because of a facility and per diem funding disagreement with the county.

The county had contracted with the private corrections management company for decades to run Silverdale, and we taxpayers had been on the hook to the tune of $18 million a year - until CoreCivic requested the county raise its $51.43 per diem per-prisoner rate by another $5.63. CoreCivic said it needed the extra money to offer its staff pay raises and make targeted investments in Silverdale's physical plant.

When county officials said no (and Sheriff Hammond said he could do it cheaper), CoreCivic took its ball and went home.

Now the sheriff's two recent funding requests, which total $12.8 million, are for exactly those same things: improving Silverdale's physical plant with replacement (read here actually working) security features and better pay to keep jailers.

This week, Hammond plans to make his new $67 million budget request to the county in a budget workshop. It will be up 10.7% up from last year. And it will compare with the $55.5 million he received in 2019, the first year the CoreCivic contract and its $18 million tab was part of his budget.

But before everyone gets in a tizzy, remember that the county's and Hammond's plan was to combine the downtown jail - a substandard facility in its own right - into an expanded and improved Silverdale facility.

Lee Brouner, Hamilton County's administrator of finance, told us Monday: "In total, [Hammond] has done a good job of controlling the costs out there. Whether that's because of COVID that hit [or what,] population is way down compared to where it used to be. The last time I looked, it was maybe around 1,500 [prisoners] a day between Silverdale and the jail. Now the population's down to about 1,000 per day."

You should also recall months-long letters and requests from local clergy, and in April from Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, asking for a U.S. Justice probe into alleged abuses and safety concerns - both in Silverdale (which the sheriff's office took over in late December 2020) and among the sheriff's deputies.

But for the moment, let's just look at money. The county paid CoreCivic $18 million a year to manage Silverdale, and Hammond already has requested his budget increase.

And, no, don't expect any help from the state.

On the contrary, the state just made it more expensive.

The Tennessee's General Assembly's ill-conceived (and privatization-industry lobbied) Truth in Sentencing bill passed in April. It became law this month, despite Gov. Bill Lee's refusal to sign it. Lee, long an advocate of criminal rehabilitation over mandatory state room and board for prisoners, surmised that lawmakers would simply override his veto.

And he's probably right. In 2021, CoreCivic of Tennessee, the nation's second largest private, for-profit incarceration company with $20 billion in revenue in 2020, spent more than $1.8 million lobbying for its profit, according to OpenSecrets.com. The new Tennessee law requires persons convicted of certain offenses serve 100% of the sentence imposed and eliminates parole for some felony crimes.

Truth-in-sentencing bills around the country are not a one-off.

Last August, the American Bar Association in a resolution wrote that since 1990, government reliance on private incarceration has increased 16-fold, with private prison corporation directors and lobbyists working to drive up profits by influencing incarceration policies - specifically so that larger numbers of U.S. residents face incarceration.

They draft legislation "for passage of stronger sentencing guidelines including three-strikes and you're out, truth in sentencing, mandatory minimums and illegal immigration detention legislation," states the ABA resolution. And the companies increasingly present governments with contracts "to maintain capacity in their private prison facilities at 90% or in some contracts 100%."

Just in case you were wondering: The Tennessee bill's fiscal note indicates it eventually will cost the state $25.4 million a year in additional incarceration costs.

Look at it this way: CoreCivic will more than get back its lost Hamilton County $18 million.

Time will tell whether Hammond is right and we can do it cheaper.