Just after midnight on July 1, 1999, two inmates in the Hamilton County Jail cut through a security screen, smashed a window and escaped.
Then-Hamilton County Sheriff John Cupp blamed the escape on a shortage of jailers and too many inmates. There should have been three jailers on that floor, he said, and there was only one. The jail was supposed to house a maximum 477 inmates, but that night it had 491.
Three weeks ago, just after 1 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2016, two inmates in the Hamilton County Jail cut through a security screen, smashed a window and escaped.
Current Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond blamed the escape on a shortage of jailers and too many inmates. There were two jailers on that floor, he said, but four are needed. The jail is supposed to house 505 inmates, but on that night, had 642.
The two escapes, 17 years apart, highlight long-standing and unaddressed problems with chronic overcrowding and understaffing at the Hamilton County Jail. For more than two decades, jail chiefs and sheriffs have been calling for more staff and more space, warning of dangerous conditions inside the jail as the facility routinely flunked state inspections.
And for more than two decades, county officials have failed to fund any long-term solutions, instead trying a variety of initiatives and minor expansions that created only temporary relief, while refusing to build a new jail.
Now, Hamilton County Commissioners are again looking at whether to build a new jail — and this time they're considering bids from private companies to build and run the facility.
Originally built in 1976, the Hamilton County Jail underwent an $8 million renovation and expansion in 1993 so that it could house 520 inmates instead of 275.
At the time, Hammond was chief deputy at the sheriff's office, and said he expected the renovated jail to meet the county's needs for 25 years. But just five years later, the jail was already overcrowded, with between 70 and 130 extra inmates, who slept on mattresses on the floor.
A year after that, in 1999, the state agency that sets the minimum standards for jails — the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) — decertified the jail. saying there weren't enough showers or toilets because of overcrowding. The agency said the jail also needed 79 more jailers, Times Free Press records show.
Little has changed since then.
During unannounced annual inspections, TCI found the jail failed to meet minimum state standards six out of the past seven years.
The jail failed for a variety of reasons.
In 2010 and 2012, staff weren't providing inmates with physicals within 14 days of booking as required by law.
In 2013, the inspector suggested jail staff were filling out security check logs without actually visiting inmates, and noted there was inadequate lighting, nonworking cameras, no evacuation plan, dirty floors and excessive photos and items posted inside jail cells.
In 2014, jail staff weren't checking on suicidal inmates every 15 minutes, were still failing to provide 14-day physicals, and weren't documenting whether medication was issued, refused or discontinued.
In 2015, some inmates were housed in showers because of overcrowding, and some didn't have access to showers at all.
This year, the jail was cited for having many inoperable fixtures, like showers, toilets and lights. In March, Chief of Corrections Joe Fowler said he believed the jail was failing to provide acceptable living conditions to inmates because some inmates didn't have regular access to showers or toothbrushes.
After failing an inspection, jails are given 60 days to correct the problems before a scheduled re-inspection. In all but one year since 2010, the jail was certified upon re-inspection, records show. The jail was decertified during 2014.
It's not uncommon for jails to fail to meet state standards upon first inspection — typically more than half of jails fail initially, said Kevin Walters, a spokesman for the Tennessee Corrections Institute. He refused to make any TCI officials available for interview and instead answered questions in emailed statements.
Most jails do pass upon re-inspection, he said. Currently, only six jails in the state are decertified, while about 80 are certified.
Generally, as long as a jail is taking action to correct the failures inspectors find, the jail can be recertified even if not all problems are fixed. Such certifications are handed out after the jail submits a plan of action to TCI showing how staff intends to fix the problems.
The Hamilton County Jail is currently certified under such a plan.
Yet even when certification is withheld, TCI has little power to force sheriffs to make changes, said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which is based in Nashville.
"In effect, nobody is going to hold their feet to the fire and make them actually fix anything," he said. "To my knowledge, there is no real enforcement mechanism behind the TCI."
Decertification does open the jail up to increased liability if an inmate were to sue about poor conditions, injury or a death, said Jim Hart, who was chief of corrections at the Hamilton County Jail from 1998 to 2007. He now works as a jail management consultant for University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service.
"If you let it go too long, and people start getting injured, whether it is correctional staff or inmates, if you're not able to provide services, protect them in custody, at some point in time a lawsuit does happen," he said.
Over the years, TCI's reports blame overcrowding and understaffing for the jail's failures.
"It has been strongly recommended in previous years' inspections, as well as this year's, that Hamilton County [Jail] add additional security staff in order to address many of the deficiencies found, as most are due in large part to the lack of sufficient staff," an inspector wrote in 2014.
Yet, the number of staff inside the jail has barely risen since 1998, Times Free Press records show. That year, there were 153 employees in the jail. This year, there are 157.
And during that time, the number of housed inmates has stayed high — on one day in April of 1998, there were 620 inmates in the jail; one day last month there were 602.
The manpower at the Hamilton County Jail is an especially important issue because of the jail's physical layout, Hart said.
The six-story jail is tucked into the corner of Walnut and East Sixth streets in downtown Chattanooga. Each floor is basically a separate operation, Hart said, and guards have very limited line of sight. Inmates must be moved from one floor to another to go to recreation or educational programming, which is a labor-intensive job.
"This is just a crazy operation," he said. "The design does not permit for good, safe, secure correctional practices, because it is piecemealed together."
A new jail, he said, has been needed since the day he took the job, nearly 20 years ago.
Spending millions of dollars on a new jail isn't a popular idea among county commissioners, who control the budget.
"If I've got $40 million dollars, would I build a school or build a jail?" Commissioner Warren Mackey said Monday. "I'm going to build a school every time."
He said the same thing in 2006 when the jail was decertified for overcrowding and the sheriff called for a new facility.
"I would prefer putting that money into the schools rather than the jails," he told the Times Free Press then. "Let's make building jails the lowest priority."
He's not alone.
"Until we have academic facilities that aren't deplorable, I can't see us putting a high priority on moving the jail ahead of schools that need to be replaced or refurbished," Commissioner Tim Boyd said Monday. "When you've got kids and faculty working in moldy schools that are falling down, I can't put jails ahead of that."
Commissioners have built eight new schools since 2008, records show. The last property tax increase for schools was in 2005.
Some commissioners don't think a new jail is even necessary.
"I don't think we need a new jail," said Commissioner Greg Beck, who worked in the jail for 10 years. "We can accommodate those who are in jail now and those coming to jail. If the process speeds up a little bit, we'll have the process of processing people through jail and through the courts, and I think we'll be able to accommodate those who are mischievous."
It's a common attitude among local officials, said Mary Sidney Harbert, senior investigator at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.
"I don't know of any community that wants to spend money on its jails," she said.
But it is undeniably the county's responsibility to provide enough money that the jail can operate without violating inmates' constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, she said. She pointed out that most of the people housed in the Hamilton County Jail haven't been to trial. In August, only 17 percent of inmates in the jail were convicted and serving sentences. Eighty percent were awaiting trial.
"They haven't been convicted yet; they're presumed innocent," she said. "So it's inhumane that you're forcing people into these conditions where they have to fend for themselves. All the communities I know about are in the same boat where people care [about jail conditions] only if they have a loved one who is incarcerated, and everybody else just doesn't want to know about it, or they assume that things are happening as they should be happening."
Jail records show that violence in the jail has risen sharply since 2013. That year, there were 18 inmate assaults on staff. That rose to 31 in 2014, 64 in 2015 and 86 so far in 2016.
Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose from 76 in 2013 to a peak of 120 in 2014, then decreased slightly to 112 in 2015 and 107 so far this year.
A TCI inspector attributed the rising violence to understaffing in a 2013 report.
But instead of significantly increasing staffing or putting a plan in place to build a new jail, commissioners over the decades have called for reducing the number of people jailed on nonviolent offenses or misdemeanors, increasing educational opportunities to prevent people from ending up in jail, lowering bonds and increasing alternative sentencing.
Faced with overcrowding in 1999, commissioners agreed to hire magistrates to work inside the jail and set bonds for inmates. The move significantly sped up processing and booking, getting inmates in and out of the jail more quickly.
In 2006, the county again tackled overcrowding by launching an alternative bond program that would allow some nonviolent offenders to be released on a judge's order even if they couldn't afford to pay their bond.
However, the program was abandoned before the end of the first year because two Hamilton County Sessions Court judges, Bob Moon and David Bales, refused to participate after the first inmate released under the program was re-arrested days after being let out of jail, Times Free Press records show.
Hart said that during his time as jail chief, he found the commissioners were willing to fund operational budget items like fire systems and repairs. They denied his requests for more staffing. But he said the commissioners did make a difference through their programs.
"Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn't have magistrates?" he said. "Could you imagine if some of these initiatives weren't there, what the crowding would be like?"
He added that he believes county commissioners wanted to "turn over every rock" before considering new construction.
"To look at what we can do to address our problems and challenges, short of new construction," he said. "And I think we did that. I guess once all those options were explored and we turned over all those rocks, then that's when the hard decisions need to be made about the new construction process."
Over the years, the county has funded some physical expansions to jail space.
In 1997, 2004 and 2008, the county agreed to expand its privately run Silverdale Correctional Facility to take some of the overflow from the Hamilton County Jail. Silverdale was intended to house people who have been convicted and sentenced for misdemeanor offenses, but also houses all pretrial women and any pretrial men who can't fit in the jail.
Each of those expansions of about 128 beds cost around $4.5 million. One was funded in part by a $2 million federal grant.
In all, the county has spent about $28 million on expansions, building renovations and physical improvements at the jail and Silverdale since 1993, county records show.
After each 128-bed expansion opened at Silverdale, the inmate count in the Hamilton County Jail plunged briefly. In 2004, county officials applauded a drop in the daily population at the jail — from an average of 590 daily inmates in January to a record low of 493 inmates in July — immediately after a new expansion opened.
At the time, the jail was rated for a maximum 489 inmates.
But by September that year, the average daily population in the jail had crept back up to 571.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger believes it's time for a new jail.
"We do know that we need to build a new jail," he said.
The county has two options: build the jail itself and run it with county personnel, or contract with a private company to build and operate the jail, just as Silverdale is currently run by Corrections Corporation of America.
In August, the county asked private correctional companies to submit plans for a new jail. The combined jail and workhouse would be located at the Silverdale site and should have a total of 1,800 beds, according to the proposal.
Silverdale currently has about 1,200 beds, while the jail has 505. A July study estimated the county will need to house around 1,600 inmates daily for the next four years, then 1,700, rising to 1,800 by 2031.
The study suggests tearing down the older parts of Silverdale — buildings constructed in the mid-1980s — while keeping about 660 beds in some of the newer buildings and adding 1,200 beds as new construction.
The new facility would house both pretrial and convicted inmates. It would include two courtrooms with video capability and include inmate processing and booking, records show. Under the proposal, current Hamilton County correctional employees could continue to handle some functions at the new facility.
Coppinger estimates costs will range between $50 million and $75 million, and he hopes contracting with a private company will prove cheaper than building a new jail alone.
Three private companies have expressed interest, including CCA, whose 30-year contract, due to expire, recently was temporarily extended.
But Coppinger faces some stiff opposition to privatizing the jail. Some commissioners worry that private operation will be more expensive, would require the county to sign a 50-year contract, and could drive up the number of incarcerated people as the company strives to turn a profit.
"There are some functions of government that need to stay a function of government and not a for-profit organization," Commissioner Tim Boyd said.
"The business is to keep people in jail, and that is what privatizing would do," Beck said. "If they had a 10,000-bed jail, they'd fill it up, because they're in the business of keeping people in jail."
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would stop using private prisons to house federal prisoners because conditions within private prisons were less safe and less secure than government-run facilities. The decision only applies to federal facilities, not county jails.
But some experts, like Harbert, said the federal government's decision should push states to follow.
"I think that's absolutely a sign to states to say we don't think you should do this anymore," she said. "They're taking the lead and going in that direction."
The private companies' plans for the new facility were due back to the county by Friday afternoon. County officials will review the proposals and decide whether to accept a private company's plan or turn them down.
Either way, Coppinger said, the problem of overcrowding and understaffing at the jail must be dealt with.
"I can name a lot of other things I'd rather do than build jails," Coppinger said. "But again, we're in a situation where that jail was built in the 1970s, and we have to do something."
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