Silverdale jail construction project adds beds and offices, upgrades security and more

Contributed Photo / Crews are continuing to finish work on new administrative offices and an expanded booking area at Silverdale Detention Center. The County Commission recently approved a contract extension with KTM Builders through May.
Contributed Photo / Crews are continuing to finish work on new administrative offices and an expanded booking area at Silverdale Detention Center. The County Commission recently approved a contract extension with KTM Builders through May.

In the George unit at Silverdale Detention Center, a guard sits in a dark room overlooking four cellblocks. A series of windows offers a glimpse into the large, predominantly featureless living quarters where more than a dozen inmates mingle in a common area rimmed with two tiers of secure doors leading to their dormitories.

Around 4 p.m. on a Monday, it's dinnertime, and a cart of sandwiches is being wheeled into one of the rooms. Breakfast is served at 5 a.m. and lunch at 10 a.m. Although there are options to purchase additional food through the commissary, the menu is specifically designed so that prisoners receive their basic dietary requirements.

"Most inmates gain weight when they're incarcerated from the streets because they don't eat properly," Deputy Chief Shaun Shepherd, who oversees corrections, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press during a tour of the facility Jan. 30. "They're eating junk food, or they're getting a meal when they can. But here they get a consistent meal three times a day."

Three of the cellblocks operate on a fairly similar schedule, but in the area set aside for prisoners with behavioral issues and those under protection, only one or two are allowed out at a time, usually for at minimum an hour per day.

After the private prison management company CoreCivic officially terminated its contract with the county at the end of 2020, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office assumed control of Silverdale Detention Center and moved inmates at its now-shuttered downtown jail to the complex, essentially doubling the number of inmates at the jail. As of Thursday, the jail had a population of 1,012 people -- 837 men and 175 women.

When CoreCivic operated Silverdale Detention Center, it was a facility for minimum- and medium-security inmates, Shepherd said. With the closure of the downtown jail, the complex now also holds maximum-security inmates, and in the long-term, Shepherd said Silverdale will need a designated maximum-security building onsite.

In the meantime, that has required changes to the building. In George wing, which Shepherd said houses inmates with the most severe charges, that has involved replacing all the locks on the doors.

"Inmates actually could open the cells on their own," Shepherd said. "There was such disrepair when we got here two years ago, they could literally open the doors on their own ... The system they had here was terrible."


Hamilton County is wrapping up a massive construction project at the facility. The project has involved building a new public entrance to the detention center as well as an expanded intake area, a series of temporary holding cells and new administrative offices.

The renovations also include the addition of 128 new beds. In a wing for minimum security inmates -- those with misdemeanor charges -- there will be four prisoners in each room. There's also a common area with several tables, where Shepherd said inmates will have access to games like checkers or chess, and a small recreation space with a mesh window that provide access to fresh air and natural light.

"We do have some yards where we can take them for recreation outdoors as well if weather permits," Shepherd said. "We're putting in a new basketball court out there. Pickleball has even been suggested."

Several showers are situated along the wall of the common area, which Shepherd said will be outfitted with "corrections curtains" that will offer prisoners privacy but also allow staff to identify who is in each cubicle. The ward also features a medical clinic where prisoners will be able to see a nurse for minor ailments.

Nearby, crews are working on a segregation area reserved for female inmates. It's designed for more violent offenders or prisoners who have been moved for disciplinary reasons. There will be two prisoners to a cell. Down the hall, there are new classrooms available for church services or inmates preparing for their high school equivalency test.

Overall, the Sheriff's Office said pandemic-related supply chain delays have acted as an obstacle for the projects. Crews have also had to account for the complexities of moving inmates around the facility to accommodate ongoing updates.


On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Commission approved contract extensions through May for the architecture and construction companies associated with the project -- Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. and KTM Builders.

That raised the price of the project by almost $1.1 million. With the addition of the approximately $800,000 authorized on Wednesday, KTM Builders' contract now totals about $22.3 million.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea said in an email Friday that the county issued $20 million worth of bonds in 2018 and another $10 million after the agency took over full control of Silverdale in 2020.

According to an email from Hamilton County Finance Administrator Lee Brouner, the sheriff has spent or entered into contracts to spend almost $29.7 million of the allocated bond funds for improvements at Silverdale.

Lea said the office has also relied on about $1 million in unused operational dollars to update physical plant items at the facility. Those items include renovations to various buildings and HVAC upgrades. Additionally, the office has received almost a million dollars in federal pandemic relief funds for those projects.

In March, the County Commission allocated $6.3 million for security upgrades at the facility. Upgrades will include replacing aging and nonfunctioning cameras. Those dollars come from the county's $10 million bond issuance, Lea said. That funding will also support upgrades to antiquated systems in the facility's control center.

The Sheriff's Office is installing more than 400 new cameras around Silverdale, a project the office hopes to complete in December.

Jimi Hammond, the office's information technology manager, said during the tour that approximately 40% of the cameras weren't working when the Sheriff's Office assumed control of the facility at the end of 2020.


During their meeting Wednesday, commissioners also approved an agreement with Southeastern Laundry Equipment Sales Inc. to lease commercial washers and dryers at Silverdale over a seven-year period starting Feb. 15. Shepherd said the new 125-pound machines will help the jail keep up with a high volume of clothing and bedding, a need which intensified after Silverdale absorbed the inmates from downtown.

In another section of the facility, the office plans to convert an old receiving and discharge area into a step-down care center, which Sheriff Austin Garrett said would help reduce the security risks posed and manpower required to bring jailers to hospitals for medical care.

"We're trying to be as self-sufficient as possible," Shepherd said.

Beyond the ongoing upgrades to the facility, jail security also has to regularly contend with constantly evolving methods of sneaking contraband into the facility. Recently, Garrett said, that has involved soaking narcotics into paper and attempting to slip it into the facility through the mail.

"We're faced with a different challenge and method all the time, but that's our biggest fear, opioids and fentanyl getting in here and having overdoses," the sheriff said. "That's my biggest fear. That and a weapon."

The Sheriff's Office also has to maintain room at the facility for juveniles awaiting trial. On Monday, there were six at the jail, Garrett said. Corrections staff have to keep them out of sight, sound and touch of the other inmates.

"This place was not designed for that, so there's another huge challenge," he said.

Silverdale maintains a segregated section for juveniles, but if the detention center reaches capacity, the Sheriff's Office has to transport them back and forth from a state facility, which presents another staffing hurdle.


Outside the areas under active construction, Shepherd said there are other parts of the detention center that are in the dire need of updates, citing electrical and plumbing issues.

"When we first got here, we uncovered more and more things that had just kind of went by the wayside," Shepherd said. "It's our responsibility to be sure that we right that because the sheriff didn't have everyday access to this facility until we moved in. We had very minimal access to it while it was being managed by a private company."

Steven Owen, the vice president of communications at CoreCivic, said in an email Friday that it has been two years since the company operated the Silverdale Detention Center, and as such, was not in a position to address current conditions.

"We are proud of the 36-year partnership CoreCivic had with Hamilton County," Owen wrote. "During that time, the county, as the owner of the facility, had responsibility for physical plant repairs."

In the termination letter CoreCivic sent to former Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger in July 2020, the company wrote that maintaining its contract through its September 2021 term would require targeted investments in the physical plant that "directly impact the safety and security of the facility" and funding for higher salaries.

In September 2022, the Sheriff's Office boosted the starting salary for corrections officers to $50,000 a year by freezing 55 open positions, which was part of an effort to fill staffing gaps at the detention center.

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.

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