As protesters march the streets calling for criminal justice reform, Hamilton County commissioners are looking to cut ties with private jail service provider CoreCivic.
During a Friday meeting of the commission's corrections and safety committee — which was called to address growing unrest in Chattanooga and nationwide surrounding criminal justice inequities after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — commission members pressed Sheriff Jim Hammond on a series of law enforcement issues, leaning furthest into the Silverdale Correctional Facility.
Citing a number of alleged civil rights violations at the facility in recent years, several commissioners suggested ending the county's relationship with CoreCivic and allowing the county to run the facility.
"I think what a lot of the complaints and a lot of the concerns that have been not only recently raised but have been raised for, quite frankly, a long time, has been the culture that existed within CoreCivic," Commissioner Katherlyn Geter said, citing staff treatment of the inmates. "I'm definitely in favor of dismantling this contract and us taking back over the facility at Silverdale because of the concerns of that culture."
Commissioner Tim Boyd echoed the call, saying he was "unequivocally" in support of ending the partnership.
"I've been an advocate for several years that the county should take that facility back over," Boyd said. "I've never been for privatization of detention in this country. My position is, if the government takes your liberties away and places you in a detention center, the government ought to be responsible for maintaining that facility and your care and well-being."
When asked about the meeting and accusations of the overall culture at Silveredale, CoreCivic Spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said the company is committed to providing quality service to inmates.
"At CoreCivic, we recognize the inherent dignity of the human person and the need to treat every individual with respect," Gilchrist wrote. "For several years, our company has had in place a detailed Human Rights Policy that clearly outlines our commitments regarding inmate rights and treatment, including legal rights, safety and security, healthcare, reentry programming, visitation and standards of living.
"In addition, CoreCivic is committed to providing high-quality healthcare to those in our care."
Hammond said that while the sheriff's office still has eight oversight positions at the facility, the company has a lower threshold of employment than the county would.
"We've had good cooperation with CoreCivic in accomplishing the things we want," Hammond said. "But one of the biggest things we do face out there is they do pay a lot lower wages than we do, so, you get what you pay for, as the old saying goes."
Hammond said if the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office regained control of the facility it could perform "equal to if not better" than the private company.
The partnership with CoreCivic, which has been in place for several decades, was originally based on cost savings, according to County Mayor Jim Coppinger.
When Commissioner Warren Mackey asked whether the facility incurs a lot of lawsuits that would affect the county, attorney Rheubin Taylor said that while there are always several ongoing criminal justice related lawsuits in the county, very few come from incarcerated individuals.
"There were cost savings, but I think that might have outlived its usefulness," Coppinger said. "It would be a good time to look at it and see, even if it's cost neutral, about whether it comes back [under the county]."
Commissioners called for the county finance department and the Sheriff's Office to do a full financial feasibility study into dissolving the partnership with CoreCivic and having the Sheriff's Office run the facility, which Hammond said could be complete in 60 to 90 days.
Members of the public called into the end of the meeting to air similar concerns about the prison.
"In 2016, my friend Madison Deal died out there. She died in the hospital, but it was the result of a head injury that happened out there. The guards refused her medical service and she died from brain swelling," Adam Foster said. "And I think that getting them out of the county is the first step and then we need to examine prison population out there and figure out how we can work with nonviolent offenders to make sure that they're home with their families, and contributing to society, instead of being locked up and wasting taxpayer dollars."
Geter later called for the committee to meet again with CoreCivic officials to discuss the conduct issues raised by the public.
Committee Chairman David Sharpe, who called for the financial study, told the Times Free Press he still had research to do but the committee will continue to meet in the coming months.
"When we meet, I want to make sure we meet with intention and that our discussion is actionable," he wrote.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.