Hamilton County district attorney calls Silverdale Detention Center ‘sufficient’ in response to video

Staff Photo / A van is received by a guard in 2020 at Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga. Some families of former inmates at Silverdale say their loved ones died due to medical neglect at the facility.

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 3 to correct the charges against Harrison Alexander Ellison and to correct a quotation from District Attorney Coty Wamp.

A hearing on a motion to transfer a Silverdale Detention Center inmate to another facility Thursday shifted to a broader debate on the jail’s conditions with District Attorney Coty Wamp calling the facility sufficient for all inmates.

In a surprising move, Wamp appeared in court to argue against the request for a transfer before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman — even noting that the inmate has access to a touch-screen tablet for movies, books and calls.

On the second day of the hearing, Wamp said she decided to become involved after she saw media reports about video footage from the inmate’s cell, first reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“The state is here on behalf of the jail to say that it is sufficient,” Wamp said. “There’s nothing to hide about the conditions of the jail.”

Steelman ultimately denied the motion to transfer the inmate, who is awaiting trial, saying he was as safe as he could be.

The video reported by the Times Free Press last month shows Harrison Alexander Ellison’s cell at Silverdale with a leaky ceiling. The video, released by Ellison’s attorney, Brandy Spurgin-Floyd, also shows used food containers, hanging linens and water on the floor. Jail officials attributed any poor conditions to inmate vandalism of the facility.

Spurgin-Floyd submitted a motion for Ellison to be transferred from Silverdale to the state prison system, citing inhumane conditions at the facility and Ellison’s deteriorating mental health.

“We’re not asking for bond, we’re not asking for house arrest, we’re asking for Mr. Ellison to be transferred to a facility that will provide him with the basic necessities,” Spurgin-Floyd said. “Mr. Ellison is not asking for much. He is asking for a clean, dry place to be housed.”

Ellison, 21, has been at Silverdale since 2020 awaiting trial in the Sept. 29, 2020, shooting death of 18-year-old Jacobreyan Reed at a gas station on the 3900 block of Dodds Avenue in East Lake. Ellison is charged with first degree premeditated murder, especially aggravated robbery, auto burglary, identity theft and other crimes. He has not entered a plea yet.

Ellison is in a disciplinary hold after alleged behavioral issues and is confined to his cell for 23 hours a day, being allowed in common areas for one hour a day, according to testimony Wednesday by Hamilton County Sgt. Eric Qualls, the supervisor to security operations at Silverdale.

"Mr. Ellison is in George-3 (the disciplinary confinement housing unit) because he is a total pest to the Sheriff’s Office," Wamp said. "The state put in over 100 pages of documentation regarding his behavioral history over the last few weeks. He simply cannot behave himself. The court may not even need to, but the exhibits will reflect if the court were to look through them, and saw his behavior on dozens of occasions towards other inmates, towards corrections officers, towards nursing staff, he likes to spit on people, he's had what appears to be narcotics in his cell before he floods his cell, of course, some of those have amounted to actual disciplinary sanctions, but a lot of them, surprisingly, have not."

Ellison denied all such allegations during cross-examination.

“I’m not looking at this at a standpoint of someone who is not familiar with what’s going on,” Steelman said, adding that he has been at Silverdale and has seen the housing unit where Ellison is housed.

Steelman also said he had witnessed extreme behavior indicative of mental deterioration in inmates before and did not see evidence of such behavior in Ellison.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County judge: Stabbing suspect violated restraining order by ‘murdering’ woman)

“I’m concerned about the safe-keeping of anyone in custody,” Steelman said. “But we can’t allow a motion to become nonsensical or illogical on how to respond about the truth on what’s going on.

“He’s as safe as he could possibly be, so I’m going to have to deny the motion,” Steelman said, adding that based on the time and effort spent on this proceedings, he hopes the Sheriff’s Office will do everything necessary to avoid similar proceedings in the future.

Wamp said Ellison was being treated fairly, offering his use of a tablet provided by the jail as an example.

As part of a new program, people incarcerated at Silverdale have access to tablets they can use to make phone calls, watch movies and read books, according to Wamp and Qualls.

According to the evidence submitted by Wamp, Ellison spent over $1,500 watching films, music downloads and phone calls to his mother.

(READ MORE: Judge orders Chattanooga shooting suspect be removed from court after laughing during testimony)

When asked by Spurgin-Floyd if Ellison’s behavioral problems, alleged gang affiliations or any other issues change the requirement to have access to a clean, dry cell and basic necessities, Qualls said it did not.

Ellison took the stand to testify about the conditions of the cell he shares with one other person.

“There’s mold, the shower doesn’t drain,” Ellison said, adding that he only has one jumpsuit that only gets washed once a month and requests for cleaning supplies are ignored. “We don’t get cleaning supplies. If we did, it wouldn’t look like that.”

Steelman noted the length of time Ellison had been waiting for trial and wanted to ensure he had his day in court and scheduled April 10 for a jury trial.

Before the judge announced a decision, Ellison’s mother testified, asking that her son be treated as a human being.

“I am asking for him to be housed like he is a human being, regardless of what you think of him, regardless of what he’s accused of … treat him like a human being,” Joyce Durham said about the alleged conditions Ellison has encountered while at Silverdale.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.