ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Matthew Miller shows a few of his facial injuries from the assault at Silverdale. The injuries exist from his face down to his legs.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is seeking an increased budget to hire more correctional officers in hopes of adequately staffing Silverdale Detention Center, where assaults and rapes have left District Attorney Neal Pinkston calling it "the most dangerous place in the county."

Sheriff Jim Hammond is scheduled to appear before the County Commission on Wednesday and has put in a request for $67 million for the office, a $6.5 million increase from last year's budget, according to Lee Brouner, the county's chief financial officer.

"A lot of that is to increase compensation to recruit and retain employees," Brouner said in a telephone interview, adding that Hammond has repeatedly commented on the challenges the office has faced in recruiting, specifically correction officers.

"Hiring was always an issue," Hammond said in a telephone interview. "There was never adequate staffing."

According to the Sheriff's Office, the jail is 69 correctional officers short of its full staff of 221. Hammond said that while the staffing shortage is a problem, incidents of violence are nothing new for jails.

Photo Gallery

Allegations of violence continue at Silverdale Detention Center

"You will not see a jail where these incidents don't happen," Hammond said.

The sheriff said that since his office took over operations of Silverdale from private contractor CoreCivic in December 2020, it not only has had to transport inmates to a new location, it also had to integrate two jails into one, and close down the old jail facility downtown.

 

3 rapes this year

Violent incidents have persisted since the Sheriff's Office took over. Recently an Alabama man, who said he turned himself in on outstanding warrants, was beaten and raped within his first 24 hours of being at Silverdale, documents show.

"I don't want this to happen to a 19-year-old kid that's going to jail for the first time," Matthew Miller told the Times Free Press, his voice breaking.

Miller was interviewed surrounded by his family at their farm in Alabama last month.

Miller said he turned himself in on April 14, hoping to deal with outstanding warrants and be back home by the following Monday. Jail officials confirmed that he was booked on the outstanding charges that day but said they could not confirm whether he turned himself in.

"I turned myself in thinking, OK, it's Easter weekend." Miller said. "Hopefully I keep my job, see the judge, get out."

Miller, who has been sober for a year, said he finally "found joy in working" and having a relationship. He has been working as a tradesman for several months and says he hasn't missed a day of work. He said that when he was finally able to pay his outstanding fines, he decided to turn himself in.

What he didn't expect was that within the first 24 hours of him walking through Silverdale doors, he would be stabbed, brutally beaten and raped by other inmates.

Miller, who has struggled with addiction and has been in and out of jail in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Hawaii since he was 18, said he has never experienced anything like Silverdale.

According to the Hamilton County Criminal Court, Miller's criminal record includes drug possession, speeding, driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license and public intoxication.

"I've been to other jails. You put a correctional officer in that pod, and he's sitting there and he's watching everybody," Miller said. "But instead down there [at Silverdale] they just throw you in that room, and they walk off."

According to Miller, after he walked into Silverdale around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. he was placed in a booking cell. Friday morning he was moved into a housing unit with a large clear plastic container full of prison clothes and socks and a few commissary items.

Ten minutes later, he said, he was called over by another inmate who asked him what he had to trade.

"[He said] give me that, I guess he thought I had tobacco or something," Miller said. "I said no, and said if I did have it, I'm not gonna give it to [him] anyway."

As the argument escalated, Miller said he felt a blow to the head. Miller said he was beaten by several inmates, who then dragged him to the showers and continued beating him.

"I'm staggering trying to get up, one guy rips my clothes off and starts hitting me with the container," Miller said, referring to the plastic container for clothes. "He's filling it up with water and throws it on me, he hits me in the head with it, keeps hitting me to where I can barely see."

Miller paused before he continued.

"I was sexually assaulted," he said.

Miller was also losing blood from stab wounds to his back.

"They're telling me 'you're gonna stay in here all night' and I'm thinking I'm gonna bleed out, they're gonna come in here and rape me all night, and then they're gonna find my body."

Miller said that once he saw the opportunity to leave the shower and call for help, he did. Miller shouted for a guard to assist him. According to Miller, the officer looked at him, calmly motioned for him to sit down and asked for someone to give him a blanket before calling a nurse over. Miller was taken to Erlanger hospital to be treated for his injuries.

According to Erlanger medical records provided to the Times Free Press by Miller's family, his injuries included multiple cuts to his scalp and neck, stab wounds to the left side of his back, a closed head injury, abrasion to the left arm, sexual assault, tear of medial collateral ligament of the right knee, assault, closed fracture to the frontal sinus, and medial condyle fracture of right femur.

In a 1 a.m. log entry on April 16 by Kelly Powell, a licensed nurse practitioner at Silverdale, Miller was described with bruises on top of his head, staples to the back and top of his head from Erlanger, a "Y" shaped laceration to the forehead above the left eye with 13 sutures. He also had deep bruising to the chest and the back of his neck and his upper left arm, three punctures to the left side of his back and edema or swelling to the right knee, right foot and ankle.

Miller said he was asking to call his mother from Silverdale but was refused his phone call, so he asked someone with the medical staff to call for him.

In an 8:28 a.m. log on April 16, Susan Taylor, a social worker at Silverdale, noted her request to call Miller's mother was denied by her supervisor.

The Times Free Press reached out to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, which has been managing the detention center since December 2020, for comment about the incident.

"As a matter of policy and security, corrections services personnel do not contact family members in times of emergency," J. Matt Lea, department spokesperson, said in an email.

"There are several reasons for this, mainly to ensure the security of the inmate, especially if they should have to be brought off-site to a medical facility. This is not an uncommon practice within jails and prisons. As for access to a phone, all inmates have access to phones via video visitation, however the inmates do have to pay for this service.

"If the condition of the inmate is or should become extremely serious or life-threatening, a person involved in the investigation will contact a family member or the inmate's chosen point of contact," Lea said.

According to Miller, he was able to call his mother during the overnight shift Friday into Saturday, to tell her he had been assaulted. After that, his mother called 911 and requested a wellness check.

"I said I wanted a [deputy] to go and check in on him," Theresa Eyssen, Miller's mother, said during the interview at the farm, adding that no one from Silverdale ever called her.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office said that Miller's rape is the third at Silverdale so far in 2022.

In mid-March a male inmate "was so savagely raped he was released to a mental health facility with the likelihood of surgery to repair the injuries incurred [during the attack]," according to a lawsuit filed by attorney Derek Jordan on behalf of three inmates.

In late March, a female inmate was sexually assaulted at Silverdale as she shared a bed with another inmate, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

 

Looking for an Uber

Incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence are not isolated. Another incident involving a Florida man who was picked up for public intoxication while he was visiting friends ended in the man leaving with a concussion and multiple sutures in his chin, according to medical records from Parkridge North Emergency Hospital.

Brad Gifford, a Florida resident with no prior record in the Hamilton County Criminal Court system, was visiting Chattanooga on Oct. 2 when he had too much to drink and ended up walking up to a home in Lookout Mountain to ask for help getting an Uber because his phone died, according to Gifford.

Gifford told the Times Free Press that the woman who answered the door was alone at the home with her daughters, and she called her husband, who called the Lookout Mountain Police. Gifford said he tried to explain to officers what was happening, and they arrested him.

"The cop just tossed me in the patrol car and charged me with public intoxication and criminal trespassing," Gifford said. " So I get detained at 10 p.m., they didn't give me a phone call, [my] phone was dead, [they] locked me up in a holding cell."

Gifford was taken to Silverdale Detention Center for booking. He said that a few hours later, Cyrion Brown, 19, who was arrested on assault charges, was put in the same holding cell with him and the other men. According to Gifford, he told the new arrival to stop harassing the other detainees and soon after he became his target.

"If I hadn't been in decent shape to defend myself, he would have killed me," Gifford said. "[He] busted my chin wide open, concussion, two black eyes, stitches in my face, hurt my back, tore my lip away from my jaw, my face has nerve damage."

According to Gifford, he cried several times for help but no one showed up. On Dec. 13, 2021, Gifford testified against Brown on assault charges Gifford pressed against him.

Brown had the assault against Gifford added to his previous charges, and his case was bound over to the Hamilton County Criminal Court grand jury with a bond set at $1,500. Brown's case is still pending grand jury action.

"I feel like Silverdale Detention Center and Hamilton County have a responsibility to keep detainees safe," Gifford said. "I have been assaulted and permanently injured. I deserve compensation."

Gifford's original charges were dismissed by Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gerald Webb, according to the court's database.

Others asking for compensation for their injuries sustained while at Silverdale are Christopher Lamond Bell, Michael Ray Brinkley and Luster Dewayne Deloney, former inmates who are seeking $1 million in the lawsuits filed on Apr. 15 against Hammond and the Sheriff's Office.

Each lawsuit claims that correction officers deliberately neglected and allowed brutal "inmate initiations" to occur.

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the office could not comment on any pending litigation.

Bell's lawsuit claims he was injured on April 23, 2021, between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. after he was placed in a cell that "was known to house violent inmates." Bell was stabbed 17 times with shanks including once in the neck that "missed his jugular vein by half an inch," the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit also alleges that "no one from Bell's family, not even his mother, was notified of Bell's hospitalization" at Erlanger.

Deloney's suit alleges that on April 23, 2021, also between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., he was placed in a cell known for housing violent inmates, where "inmates, both white and Black, with towels around their faces were ready to assault new inmates." Deloney was stabbed six times, according to the lawsuit.

Brinkley's lawsuit alleges that deputies failed to lock his cell in his housing unit at night, and although Brinkley pounded on the door, the officers ignored him. According to the lawsuit, "five inmates entered Brinkley's cell and attacked [him]." Brinkley was stabbed nine times, according to the lawsuit.

Derek Jordan, the attorney representing all three men, said he could not comment and would "let the proceedings speak for themselves," in an email to the Times Free Press.

On April 25, Pinkston made the comment about Silverdale as "the most dangerous place in the county." He said he would formally request that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the conditions and operation of Silverdale.

When the Times Free Press followed up this week, Pinkston's spokesperson said the office would not provide further comment on whether the request has officially been made yet.

In response to Pinkston's request, and a similar request by a group of clergy members, Hammond said it was a "slap in the face" during a press conference held on April 28. Hammond added that assaults happen in jails, especially one that holds violent criminals like Silverdale.

Miller, who was released from Silverdale on April 19 after the judge suspended his license for a year and placed him on 11 months and 29 days of probation and ordered him to complete a drunk driving avoidance class, is grateful that he had the support of his family to get him through. He paid a $50 fine.

"Your kids are always your kids," said his mother, Eyssen, breaking into tears. "It only makes me want to cry."

"I couldn't have gone through this without my family, I have a great family," Matthew Miller said. "I really couldn't have if I didn't have my family. I want all this behind me."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT