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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond holds a photo showing a variety of improvised weapons and other contraband items as he speaks during a news conference at the sheriff's office on Thursday.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond's defiant news conference Thursday proved he may only have four more months in office, but he doesn't plan to to go out as a scapegoat.

He was responding to a call by Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston for a U.S. Justice Department probe into recent violent incidents at the Silverdale Detention Center and its general operation.

But we think Hammond has a few points in his favor.

If this were a non-inflationary economy and hiring was easy at the Silverdale Detention Center, and if the center were completely finished out with proper housing for specific populations, the violence would be less understandable.

As it is, Hammond and his office had only six months to figure out how to run things at the center after private operator CoreCivic pulled out of its contract in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020. Couple that with the fact that at the end of 2021, the center also inherited all those locked up at the time in the Hamilton County Jail, which was to be closed.

And factor in the fact the center is in the midst of several phases of expansion, without proper facilities completed for individual prisoners, and you have had a powder keg waiting to explode.

That said, although the sheriff's pride may not allow for such a thought, an investigation by the Justice Department might be seen more like a home inspection.

As Silverdale transfers at the end of August to presumed new Sheriff Austin Garrett (who, as chief deputy, has no opposition in the May 3 Republican primary or August general election), a probe might offer insurance that the build-out is on track to help factor out more tension, might codify that the inability to hire enough corrections employees does make running such a center more difficult, might suggest that better and specific training could or should be implemented, and might acknowledge that the facility is being operated about as well as it can be under current conditions. Of course, that is a lot of "mights."

We wish it didn't seem Pinkston was making a political move by calling for a probe a week before an election he may be losing, that it didn't seem he was caving to a group of concerned clergy who are not likely knowledgeable about what all Hammond is dealing with at Silverdale, or that the perfect storm of issues at the center is at least a contributing factor to the violence. But what's done is done.

"I take it as a little bit of a slap in the face that the district attorney has asked the [Department of Justice] to conduct an investigation," the sheriff said Thursday.

Hammond, in his news conference, laid out the situation that has brought Silverdale to where it is today, including the large number of incarcerated who have been waiting years for trials (or disposition of their cases), but he then felt the need to go further.

He held up enlarged mugshots of several people being held on various serious charges, inviting members of the media to examine them further after he spoke. He told those attending the news conference that protecting the lives of inmates came third (after his officers and members of the community), instead of — to our way of thinking — saying they deserved equal protection while jailed. And he held up a photo of a man covered in tattoos, claiming it was difficult for inmates getting out of Silverdale to find jobs if they were so adorned.

We know Hammond to be a good man and know he rightly wants to imprison the worst of the worst (and find other solutions for those with drug or mental problems), but it is extra comments like these that give some members of the public the impression the sheriff believes anyone arrested deserves lesser treatment.

Indeed, in his news conference, he said as much.

"There are those who think that once you're locked up you have to be given the same rights as when you're outside," Hammond said. "That's not true."

We're not clear on what the law says about the specific treatment of those in custody, but we're pretty sure it still says those who are arrested are innocent until proven guilty, and we're pretty sure it says somewhere that those incarcerated deserve to be treated humanely.

We're fairly certain Hammond would tell us he does exactly that until given reason not to, and that's where the current milieu of conditions at Silverdale comes in. And maybe that's where an examination by the Justice Department — if it comes to that — can help the county's only lock-up be the type of place it should be as it grows into the facility it one day will be.

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