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Photo by Austin Garrett, Chief Deputy Hamilton County Sherif's Department / The 2nd floor of the Hamilton County Jail, which usually houses 120 inmates, is empty. With the COVID-19 pandemic the jail population has decreased.

The Hamilton County Commission approved 200 additional temporary beds for the Silverdale Correctional Facility on Wednesday, despite capacity concerns.

An ordinance passed Wednesday allows the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to add 200 portable beds to the Silverdale facility to accommodate ongoing plans to close the downtown jail and combine both facilities by the end of the year.

"While we're waiting for phase two — which would include 128 additional beds, and we're also looking at modular housing to add additional beds — we are going to be slightly over capacity," sheriff's office information systems manager Ron Bernard said of the office's long-term plan when asked Wednesday. "So these are called stack-a-bunks and these will go in current housing units to allow us to add additional inmates."

(Private jail company CoreCivic is pulling out of contract with Hamilton County)

Asked by Commissioner David Sharpe to explain the $44,000 purchase, Bernard said the purchase would add 200 beds to the existing housing units at the Silverdale facility, to accommodate the roughly 1,250 people now housed between the two facilities.

But, according to Bernard, Silverdale is only certified to house 1,084 inmates.

"We've been at that level for several months now," Bernard said. "Probably three or four months now, we've been hovering anywhere between 1,150 and 1,300 [inmates] between both facilities combined."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County sheriff seeks to combine jails, lower inmate count as CoreCivic contract ends)

Concerned by numbers already exceeding the facility's capacity, Sharpe raised questions about cost efficacy vs. public safety.

"Back in March and April, due to COVID-19 concerns, we were able to reduce the number of inmates that we had at Silverdale and downtown," he said, citing the roughly 900-950 combined inmates maintained by the jail during the first peak of the pandemic.

"When addressing public safety issues, you know, obviously first priority is that we maintain the safest environment possible in our communities. And I'm interested in this topic specifically because I want to know if we were able to reduce our population and maintain the level of public safety which we expect in our community," Sharpe said. "What is happening now, with regard to public safety, that is requiring us to increase capacity and spend additional taxpayer dollars?"

Before being asked to move the discussion to a safety and corrections subcommittee meeting next week, Sharpe requested Bernard compile numbers on recidivism and number of inmates in the two facilities.

"Every day, the 200 beds cost us $20,000. Every day, in perpetuity. That's a major expense," Sharpe estimated. "So $44,000 necessarily isn't the big question here. The question is $20,000 a day in perpetuity. And if we don't know specifically who we are putting in these beds, why we're putting them there and if putting them there improves public safety I just want to be very intentional when we're spending taxpayer dollars."

Sharpe also asked County Attorney Rheubin Taylor about liability in exceeding certified capacity, to which Taylor responded "there are always liability issues around" and said they could discuss that further in a legal meeting.

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-2 to pass the resolution, with Commissioner Warren Mackey echoing Sharpe's concerns.

"I've continued to be concerned about the trajectory of what it costs to house these prisoners," he said. "And those numbers keep going up on some level you start thinking, if you build the jails, will they come?"

"And apparently they will."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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