Hamilton County's somewhat sudden detachment from private jail operator CoreCivic and the merger of its two jail facilities is on track for a timely, cost-neutral transition.
The private prison company operated the Silverdale Correctional Facility under a 30-year-old contract with the county, which the company decided to terminate this past summer. Hamilton County had six months to prepare to assume operations over Silverdale starting Dec. 31.
Now, less than a week before CoreCivic's departure, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office says it is on track to not only take over Silverdale but also to merge it with the downtown jail facility, and do it all with no additional expense to the county.
"It has been a fast and furious few months of getting all of this together," Sheriff Jim Hammond said Wednesday, a week before the scheduled transition. "It is running a lot smoother than I would have thought."
According to Hammond, he and his 15-person task force are prepared to make the official switch effective 6 p.m. on Dec. 30.
"We feel like we are on track for a smooth transition," Hammond said of situating the combined roughly 1,200 inmates. "I think we're even moving some of the downtown inmates this morning."
Moreover, Hammond boasts that the savings from no longer housing inmates downtown and being free of the CoreCivic contract will cover the increased operational costs of the growing Silverdale campus.
"I am not anticipating asking for any more money in this year's budget from the county," Hammond said. "We have sufficient money — through what's leftover from the CoreCivic contract and bond money — to carry us through the transition, and I will not be asking for more money in the 2022 budget for these programs."
While the county has made many hires in the process, one of the biggest hang-ups has been assembling the staff necessary to run the facility.
Hammond has said throughout the transition that HCSO would try to hire some current Silverdale employees, but many are either leaving to work elsewhere for CoreCivic or don't meet the county's state-mandated standards for certified positions.
"We feel good that we're covered, but like I said, CoreCivic had about 170 or 180 employees and we knew we were going to have a hard time getting some of them and those that wanted to go with us, some of them could not meet the qualifications which is essential," Hammond said. "I think when it's all said and done, we're going to pick up close to 30 of their employees.
"We've also been recruiting outside and are still recruiting."
According to Director Ron Bernard, the county is still looking to hire over 200 staff members to run the expanded facility.
"We are targeting filling 232 immediately and then reevaluating the staffing plan and filling based on operational need," Bernard said Wednesday. "Our primary shortfall is corrections officers and law enforcement clerks – we have 30 vacancies as of Dec. 21 against the immediate target of 232."
To fill the staffing holes, Hammond has offered a $500 bonus to HCSO employees who refer any qualified new hire that is able to make it through the hiring and training process.
Hammond said he is also contracting a perimeter guard company to do some security temporarily while the county gets up to a full staff, which saves the sheriff from having to hire around 16 more people and spending roughly another $200,000.
"Those people will have nothing to do with inmates," he said. "It will be a private company to simply ride the fence line and check for contraband or that kind of stuff."
For years, the county has planned to improve the Silverdale facility, beginning with a $20 million first phase in January.
Now, with CoreCivic pulling out and the county leading the improvement independently, Hammond says the facility can not only improve, but do so at a fraction of the original cost estimate.
"When we first started these conversations, I was talking in the neighborhood of $150 million for a new jail. That was before CoreCivic decided they wanted to move on," he said. "I really think once it's all said and done, and I'm going to be really optimistic, I think at most we'll be around half of what it would have cost to build a new one."
With increased staffing and facility improvements, Hammond says the Silverdale facility — which is currently certified for 1,084 inmates by the state — will get a higher capacity rating.
Once the initial transition is complete, the county will begin a long-awaited renovation of the Silverdale facility, and will add nearly 400 additional beds while improving the facility over the next two years.
"But keeping the jail full isn't the goal," he said.
"I'm adding a program called re-entry that is going to be more aggressive about moving prisoners out of there and getting them into life skills and things that would keep them from recidivating," Hammond said. "That will be a big help. We've become an all-purpose shop."
Hammond has a team of nine, with one more vacancy to fill, that will head the re-entry program beginning Jan. 1.
"I'm extremely proud of how quickly we could put a plan together. It was a daunting task, and I told the mayor that I thought I could do it if he gave me the leeway, and that has all worked out very nicely," he said. "I'm very satisfied that the transition team has given me what I've asked for out of them, and I think the county should be proud.
"We're moving in the right direction."
When his term is up in 2022, Hammond says he will not seek re-election but will be proud to end his career on merging, renovating and reforming the county's correctional sites.
"One of my desires is to end my term in office well, and this is one thing I could be really proud of when I walk away two years from now," he said. "There are other pieces I'm proud of, but this will be a lot of my legacy.
"If this all fits together, it'll be a win-win for everybody."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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