This story was updated Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, at 8 p.m. with more information.
Ten people face conspiracy charges in an alleged contraband smuggling operation at the Silverdale Detention Center, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday.
The sheriff's investigation found that a woman — Sara Meredith, 24 — staged a domestic assault with the purpose of getting arrested in order to smuggle a phone charger and suspected narcotics into the jail, sheriff's officials said during a news conference.
According to Hamilton County court records, Chattanooga police responded to a Super 8 hotel on McCutcheon Road and spoke to Deneisa Hemphill, who said she'd been in an argument with her ex-girlfriend Meredith over a credit card. Hemphill claimed Meredith "became physical and hit Ms. Hemphill in the right eye."
Officers then spoke with Meredith, who admitted to punching Hemphill in the eye. And a witness — who online court records show has not been charged in connection to the alleged conspiracy — corroborated the account.
Police noted that Hemphill had no sign of injury. But Tennessee law states that if a primary aggressor can be identified, police are required to arrest that person.
Once at the jail, however, a warrant was obtained to perform a body cavity search, because a detective had been tipped off the day before to "a female who was going to purposely get arrested to smuggle contraband into Silverdale Detention Facility," court records state.
But Meredith voluntarily produced the contraband, Chief Deputy Austin Garrett said at the news conference.
As she was getting dressed, another package was found in her pants pocket, according to court records.
The contraband was contained in a total of four packages, which contained 45 grams of methamphetamine, an unspecified amount of tobacco, 0.6 grams of heroin and 26 suboxine strips, authorities said.
The strips are commonly used in heroin addiction treatment. Garrett said the sheriff's office is working to bolster its drug counseling program, saying, "we have an obligation to try to point people in the right direction before we release them out into society — if we can provide them with that type treatment ... while they're in there, we've got a better shot at being successful."
Over the course of the investigation, detectives learned to whom the contraband was supposed to go and who helped supply it.
According to court records, Haley Neal, 35, was to receive the phone charger and some methamphetamine. Melissa Millsaps, 40, was getting some suboxine strips. And Angelica Daniels, 32, was receiving suboxine strips and methamphetamine.
Jamie Brock, 29, allegedly met with Meredith to supply the contraband for Neal. Detectives also learned that Falisha Daniels, 30, and Richard Gray, 34, reportedly met with Meredith to provide contraband for Daniels.
Daniels, Gray and Hemphill had not been arrested as of late afternoon Thursday.
Two others, Scarlett Jackson, 30, and Shaina Hughes, 23, also face charges, but they had not yet been booked, so it's not clear what their alleged involvement may have been.
All of the suspects have been charged with conspiracy to smuggle contraband into a penal institution and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. Meredith faces other drug-related charges, and she and Hemphill have been charged with filing false reports.
Chief Deputy Garrett said the investigation has not revealed any correctional staff to be involved in the conspiracy.
But, he said, "I can promise you this: If they turn up being involved in this, they're going to jail just as quick as these 10 did, maybe even quicker. We won't tolerate it."
Since taking over management of the facility from CoreCivic, the private company that formerly operated the detention center, both Garrett and Sheriff Jim Hammond said they noticed the problem with contraband was a lot worse than at the downtown jail.
But, Hammond noted, Silverdale is a "campus-style facility," whereas the downtown jail is a "linear facility" — one large, mostly enclosed building — so it was easier to maintain control of what was getting in and out of the jail.
Not long ago, a hole was cut in Silverdale's fence, and Garrett said detectives now believe it was part of a smuggling operation. That investigation is still ongoing.
Hammond said that, since they've "clamped down on all the methods that drugs were being brought into the jail, I would expect we're going to see a little more of this over the next few weeks as we tighten the noose around this kind of illegal behavior."
"I can tell you the price of drugs for those who like to profit from it has gone through the roof," he added.
"Drugs, cell phones, chargers, tobacco, things like that are at a premium," Garrett said. "There's a market inside the correctional facility, whether it's a county jail, state penitentiary or federal penitentiary, for those type of things to come in."
But now that the facility has "come under our full control, that's our focus is the safety and integrity of that facility," Garrett said.
"We want the community to know how hard we're working and that we take this extremely serious," he added. "And we also want to caution everybody: If you're trying to get drugs in our facility, we're going to pursue you — we will prosecute you every chance we get. And we're not going to tolerate it."