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Staff File Photo / Police vehicles line the street in 2016 outside the Hamilton County Jail.

When the Hamilton County Jail, then called the Hamilton County Justice Building, was dedicated on Jan. 15, 1976, Tennessee's governor, two United States senators, the 3rd District congressman and dignitaries of every stripe were on hand.

The $8 million building, called a "magnificent structure" and "ultra modern" and boasting of what was said to be the second largest electronic surveillance in the nation, offered public tours for several weeks.

Its dedication, in the year the country was celebrating its 200th anniversary, was included as a Tennessee Bicentennial event.

When Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said that the last inmate would be moved from the jail to Silverdale Detention Center today, the announcement was made in a news release from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department.

We don't like to call attention to our jails like we used to, do we?

During the 45-year history of the Hamilton County building, violent crime across the country rose, then waned. Mental facilities closed, and all too often the mentally ill wound up in jails. In an effort to stem the use of drugs, we increased penalties on drug users and then found our jails packed with criminals with sentences for low-level use.

We've also been made aware all too often how our status in society, our race and our wealth can play into the sentences of those imprisoned. And our efforts at reforming prisoners and facilitating more seamless returns to society only recently have begun to improve.

So the fact that there has been no pomp and circumstance over the expansion of the Silverdale Detention Center and its plans for future expansions is not surprising.

We wish there were no need for using the words "jail" and "expansion" in the same sentence. But we're not there yet.

Unfortunately, we still have a need for facilities to incarcerate dangerous, violent criminals. And we still have a need for role models to explain why they don't want their charges to end up in such a facility.

Such an occasion happened when the county offered tours of the old Hamilton County Jail, the one that preceded the one dedicated in 1976. That jail, adjacent to the new justice building, had a 100-year-old horse stable and dungeon, a hanging gallows and the cell that once housed labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose disappearance in 1975 was then less than a year old.

One former inhabitant of the 1881 jail, which had been said to be subject to escapes, fires and rats, brought his son. They and some 7,000 others in "long lines" walked through the old building.

"I wanted my son to see what crime leads to, how men live behind a wall," he said. "All talking in the world couldn't have made more of an impression on him than that one walk."

Then-Hamilton County Sheriff Frank Newell had a similar thought.

"I can think of no better crime deterrent than having this area's young people see for themselves what kind of place a jail is and what happens when the law is broken," he said.

The current about-to-be-vacated jail had a capacity of 325 when it was dedicated. In February 1976, 176 county prisoners were transferred there from the old jail. They would live, according to newspaper archives, in cell blocks of eight to 12 prisoners on the fifth and sixth floors. The fourth was not needed at the time.

Imagine that.

As of mid-March, the jail had a capacity of 489. It had been expanded after several courts and offices were moved to the Hamilton County Courts Building in 1991. In August 2020, the jail itself had a population of 391, with 745 more at the Silverdale Detention Center.

Less than four years ago, a $180 million bond issue included an expansion of the Silverdale center to help relieve the overcrowded conditions at the jail, which was said at the time to fluctuate between 5 and 45 inmates over capacity.

"It is near or at the end of its useful life," county Mayor Jim Coppinger said at the time. "There is also a need to expand the facility at Silverdale to address the overcrowding concerns."

Hammond was more blunt.

"It cannot be rehabilitated," he said. "It's rotten to the core in terms of the steel and concrete. You could spend twice as much money [repairing it] as it takes to build a new one. The solution is to tear it down. We would hope in the next three to five years we could be moving in that direction."

As it turns out, they will be in there in less than four years. And the jail, once the Hamilton County Justice Building, will be vacant.

Nothing has been said about what will become of the bronze abstract "Good and Evil" sculpture that graced the lobby of the building at its 1976 dedication.

Unfortunately, good and evil still abide. And even though we don't like to call attention to our jails, we hope sound practices and reform measures at the Silverdale Detention Center will inspire more of the good and less of the evil.

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