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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Hamilton County Justice Building is seen on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond says the county will be able to combine its two jails, catch up on deferred maintenance and remain cost neutral as private jail provider CoreCivic prepares to end its contract at the end of the year, allowing him to focus on jail reform.

At a news conference Wednesday, Hammond seemed optimistic about the cost effects of the transition, as well as his ability to fulfill what he recently called a "pipe dream" of closing the downtown jail and shipping its inmates to the Silverdale facility.

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

"I have put together a transition team that will meet tomorrow at our office for the first look at how we're going to divide up each component of what it'll take to make this massive move," Hammond said. "I can tell you part of that will be my desire to close the facility downtown when we come out here, if I can get all the numbers to work right. That in itself will be a savings."

Hammond says he is unsure what will come of the downtown jail building, which belongs to the county's general government.

While the county will have increased operational expenses and hires, Hammond believes that the savings realized by not paying the for-profit company for the latter half of the fiscal year will offset expenses associated with the move, making the transition feasibly cost neutral, if the company and county work together.

After expressing concerns just last week about whether CoreCivic would cover maintenance costs to bring the facility up to snuff during the transition, Hammond seemed much more confident that the company would foot the bill when he spoke Wednesday.

"Things will be more amicable. I think we've about solved it," he said. "The issue really came about in some of the things that were in the contract that they just didn't fulfill, but now everybody seems to be singing off the same page."

The expenses of repairing locks, ceilings and other operational necessities at the facility will exceed his original estimate of $100,000, Hammond said, but the actual assessment is still underway, so no exact figure is available.

Asked about Hammond's remarks Wednesday afternoon, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist told the Times Free Press that the company "committed to a safe, seamless transition, and will work through contractual matters as part of that process through direct communication with county officials."

The emailed response did not answer whether the company agrees with the county's interpretation of the contract.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission considers ending contract with private jail provider CoreCivic)

 

"Perfect opportunity" for reform

In addition to Hammond's expectations of capital savings if CoreCivic provides maintenance, the sheriff said that a recent decrease in inmates— partially brought on by the pandemic— is indicative of future operational savings.

"We see a lower number of inmates being housed both [at Silverdale] and downtown to the tune of maybe 500 inmates," Hammond said. "That's a huge savings. We've been saving about $700,000 a month."

Hammond said encouraging alternative sentencing programs and housing fewer inmates is not just a financial win, but a personal goal of his that he expects will improve as he takes full control of the county's incarcerations.

"I'm also looking at bringing on a couple of additional personnel whose sole job will be to look at every inmate who comes in here and say 'how can I make a productive citizen out of this individual,'" Hammond said, emphasizing the importance of alternative sentencing, education and professional development for "low risk" offenders.

"If I get someone lined up like that and we go back to the judge and say 'Your Honor, will you consider commuting or reducing your sentence,' it would give [inmates] an opportunity," he said. "I have for a long time wanted to be more engaged in programs to keep people from coming here rather than just saying build me a bigger place to hold them. This is a perfect opportunity."

Hammond said that he was set to present a transition plan to the County Commission on Wednesday but it was left off the agenda. He expects to present the plan in the next two weeks at a regular commission meeting.

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

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