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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Members of the Howard School marching band walk past a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. while lining up for a memorial parade and march along M.L. King Boulevard on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The memorial parade and march was part of the Unity Group of Chattanooga's 48th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week celebration, which began on Jan. 8th and ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

A group of Chattanooga area residents gathered online Sunday to discuss criminal justice reform, specifically in the Hamilton County prison system, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Rev. Charlotte S.N.N. Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, called on Hamilton County leaders to release inmates held on minor charges, those who cannot pay cash bail and pregnant mothers held because of minor infractions, among others.

"So we call upon humanity and all of those who believe in justice to de-carcerate. We have the power to de-carcerate all nonviolent offenders," Williams said.

This summer, the 36-year partnership between the county and the private, for-profit prison company CoreCivic ended. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office assumed leadership of the Silverdale Detention Center on the first of the year.

The virtual gathering Sunday focused on the treatment of inmates in Hamilton County, including alleged violence toward inmates and a lack of caution around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The group heard recorded testimonials from people with direct experience inside county detention centers.

More than a dozen inmates tested positive for COVID-19 last summer and detention center staff have faced accusations of not following proper protocols to ensure inmate safety during the pandemic, specifically in not following the countywide mask mandate. This month, an inmate told a local judge he had to "cause a scene" multiple times to receive his prescribed daily medication.

This year's annual, weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. is being held virtually with a series of Zoom meetings hosted through the Unity Group of Chattanooga.

Photo Gallery

Chattanooga's MLK Day parade through the years

Marie Mott, a local activist and candidate for a city council seat, said it is unacceptable for the county to lock up people the county failed to educate or provide with equal opportunities. A prison sentence hurts more than the individual, she said.

"So many in our community are caregivers, more than we understand and talk about," Mott said. "What does that mean when a caregiver is locked up?"

Families with loved ones in state and local detention facilities spoke of their concerns about safety and housing conditions, including alleged lack of access to showers.

Using photos and videos, the group gathered Sunday night contrasted the words of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" about the apathy and antipathy of white Christians with images from last summer's Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis.

The 51st annual MLK Week celebration included the Saturday morning prayer breakfast and other presentations from local groups such as the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch NAACP, Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence and Community Control Now, among others.

For example, Kevin Muhammad of the Nation of Islam presented "Politics Without Economics is Symbols Without Substance" on Jan. 14 to discuss the upcoming mayor and city council races. Voting for the municipal races will be held March 2.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs is hosting a series of virtual tributes to King starting at 10:30 a.m.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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