After 36 Years, an Experiment in Private Prisons Comes to an End in Tennessee

The entrance to Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Thirty-six years ago, international attention rested on a county jail that sat alongside a narrow road in the northeast corner of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Journalists from Switzerland and Canada toured the prison. The CBS Show “60 Minutes” featured it in an episode, according to newspaper clippings found at the Chattanooga Public Library.

The Hamilton County Commission voted to hand over operation of the facility to Corrections Corporation of America, known today as CoreCivic, and the company took over the penal farm on Oct. 15, 1984.

Silverdale was a step up. Before it, CoreCivic had only begun managing an immigration detention center in Texas and a juvenile facility in Memphis. This was one of the first times a private company in recent history, riding the idea of privatization, would take over an adult facility. Today, it is one of the largest private prison companies in the nation.

It caught the attention of the world.

“Silverdale is the place where everyone will decide if a private company can or should operate a prison,” then-Warden Bob Landon told the Chattanooga Times in 1985.

But this summer, CoreCivic sent a letter to the county saying it was exercising a clause that allowed it to withdraw from the facility within 180 days. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is now quickly attempting to take over the aging facility.

And then there was news back in mid-February that two federal judges directed all 52 federal inmates who were housed in the facility to be transferred out and housed in neighboring facilities. They did so, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, for the prisoners’ safety, and the sheriff’s office launched a criminal investigation.

“There was a general understanding, not just among the judges, federal judges, but also the state judges that Silverdale was not being repaired the way it needed to, there was too much laxness in the way that the private company was dealing with the issues,” Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said in an interview with Courthouse News.

At the request of the judges, Hammond launched an investigation – which included an undercover component – that found many repairs in the facility were left unaddressed. Hammond handed the results over to the county’s Security and Corrections Committee.

For several years, at least one criminal court judge in Hamilton County expressed concern over the access to medical care at Silverdale. While Judge Tom Greenholtz declined a request for an interview, he pointed out several court records where, for instance, he suspended a man’s sentence because when the man developed a “shoulder condition,” the facility gave him Tylenol instead of administering an x-ray; the facility also said the man “refused” treatment for a “cancerous condition,” according to the 2017 order.

In February, federal judges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee had “suggested strongly” Hammond move federal prisoners from Silverdale but did not issue an order, the sheriff said.

The entrance to Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

Federal judges Sandy Mattice and Travis McDonough did not respond to requests for interviews.

The county’s Security and Corrections Committee met June 19 to consider letting the contract with CoreCivic expire when it was up for renewal in two years.

Reports of the conditions at Silverdale, Hammond said, “reinforced a lot of people’s thinking that you need to get rid of a privatization and take it back under government.”

“Because it may be a little more costly in the front end, but with government you’re assured these people’s rights are being protected, which are just the basic rights like proper ventilation, proper lights coming in, proper food schedule,” he said. “The things that are just human rights.”

CoreCivic sent its letter announcing it was pulling out of Silverdale on July 3.

Hammond, a tall man with a short, salt-and-pepper mustache who was briefly hospitalized in October after contracting Covid-19, hopes to spend his last two years as sheriff – he will not seek reelection in 2022 – bringing new housing facilities to Silverdale and closing the sheriff’s jail downtown, which sits on the side of a hill above the criminal courthouse but below the old courthouse which handles some civil matters in the county.

In 1984, as county commissioners considered whether or not to take the plunge and privatize the county lockup, Hammond was a chief deputy for then-Sheriff H.Q Evatt who reviewed the contract.

“There are too many questions about it. I don’t want us to be the guinea pig,” Hammond told the Chattanooga Times in September 1984.

At that time, a federal magistrate judge was overseeing the jail because of overcrowding, Hammond said. 

As 36-year-old newspaper clips tell it, the county spent about $23 a day to house a prisoner in 1984. CoreCivic had told the county it could house a prisoner at Silverdale for $21 a day while paying their jailers, dressed in tan V-neck sweaters and white shirts, more. And after the Hamilton County Commission voted to have CoreCivic, then CCA, run the county workhouse, Silverdale and Hamilton County were the subjects of at least two early studies on private prisons.

For this transition, county corrections officers need to adjust from a linear jail — as the one downtown — to a campus-style facility in Silverdale and learn about the maintenance issues, the sheriff’s office Chief of Corrections Joe Fowler said in an interview. The change will be an unexpected challenge, he said.

“When this started out, we’re 30 staff short,” Fowler said. “We were already without resources that we needed here.”

Fowler, a veteran of the U.S. Army, has worked at military prisons such as Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba.

The county plans on slowly shuttering the downtown prison and moving to fully operate at Silverdale. It plans on relying on technology to help run the jail – for instance, by having inmates appear for court via video.

“I’m a believer in using technology to the best of our ability,” Fowler said. “So video is just one aspect of that. Another, for example, is out at Silverdale they’re using paper and pen to do their checks of inmates.”

The same reliance on paper goes for Silverdale’s management of prisoner’s medical care. Meanwhile, the county plans on using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and permanent electronic records.

Fowler expects the federal judges to use Silverdale to house federal prisoners once the county takes over the facility.

“I don’t think their issues were housing them at Silverdale,” Fowler said. “Their issues were who was operating Silverdale or the current practice out there. So I think that once we take over and we can show that everything…that we’re doing there, and we’re staffed appropriately, then I think that should reduce their angst.”

According to Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, there are several reasons why a private prison company may stop running a corrections facility. Wright said CoreCivic faced public opposition in Nashville this year, and the company stepped away from another facility in Florida because there were major maintenance issues outstanding.

Prison Legal News, a publication Wright helped start in 1990, has reported on and sued CoreCivic over the years, including a suit seeking to have some of the company’s records subject to Tennessee’s open record laws.

The entrance to Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

The industry faces a threat during an administration change. As the Obama administration wound to a close, it announced it planned to do away with federal private prison contracts. But when Trump won the 2016 election, CoreCivic’s stocks jumped. It prompted a securities lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in Nashville in 2021.

Furthermore, Wright said, the highest profit margin for companies like CoreCivic is in immigration centers: about $160 a day for a person housed in immigration detention while some of the company’s state contracts house prisoners for a third of that amount, according to Wright. 

CoreCivic’s 2017 contract with Hamilton County stipulates the county would pay the company $46.17 to house an inmate and $19.84 for every inmate after Silverdale was housing more than 890 prisoners. In the second year of the contract, the per diem rate increased to $50.42 and then by 2% every year after that.

“Basically, it’s those immigration contracts that keep the private prison industry afloat,” Wright said. “Like, if they lost those federal immigration contracts tomorrow, I don’t know that we would have a private prison industry of Geo and CoreCivic by the end of the month.” 

Recently, Wright said, CoreCivic seemed to have transitioned some of its business into government leasing, buying office space in Maryland to rent out to the federal government agencies like the Social Security Administration. CoreCivic is also working with Alabama to build two facilities, which it would then lease to the state. Meanwhile another private prison firm, Geo Group, has purchased an electronic monitoring company.

Wright, who spent 17 years incarcerated for murder in Washington state, said private prison firms have not been expanding the number of clients they have, despite the industry existing for three decades, with the biggest client being the federal government.

“None of the promises of big savings to taxpayers — none of that’s materialized,” Wright said. “They haven’t shown they can do anything better than the government. They turn a profit for their shareholders but a lot of that has to do I think with the scams of government procurement and contracting.”

In statements to Courthouse News, CoreCivic said it was proud of its 36 years of operating Silverdale and cited it as part of the company’s success.

“CoreCivic is and has been committed to providing high quality, compassionate treatment to all those in our care,” said Ryan Gustin, public affairs manager for CoreCivic. “We strive to operate safe facilities that provide education and effective reentry programming to help individuals make positive changes to ensure that they can return to the community successfully.”

In May, the company released an environmental, social and governance report in which CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger said when the company started, the courts had declared eight corrections systems unconstitutionally dangerous because of their conditions and had intervened in 40 states because of the states of the jails.

“I’m proud that CoreCivic was part of the solution then, and I’m proud of everything we’re doing to help solve big problems now,” Hininger wrote in the May report.

In its letter to the county, CoreCivic said that it expects the county would want to work with the company beyond Dec. 30 to extend the transition time. It said the county needed to increase the per diem it pays the company to house a prisoner by $5.63, an increase that would go towards pay raises that it said would lead to better staff retention.

CoreCivic’s letter also raised concerns about “significant safety and security concerns that haven’t been addressed by the county as owner of the physical plant” at Silverdale.

Among those concerns, CoreCivic said some of Silverdale’s doors don’t work correctly, locking controls are faulty and some of the camera systems have broken.

In the meantime, while CoreCivic is paid per prisoner, the number of inmates housed in Hamilton County have dropped because of the pandemic. In late September, about 458 inmates were at the sheriff office’s downtown jail, where it can hold 505 prisoners. Silverdale, a facility with 1084 beds, had a capacity of about 765 in September.

Those are numbers Hammond hopes to keep low moving out of the pandemic.

The “more modern, serviceable physical structure” the sheriff hopes to leave at Silverdale would feature natural light piped in via fiber optics and the ability for prisoners to make court appearances via teleconference so they don’t have to be transported the dozen or so miles to the downtown criminal courtrooms.

Hammond estimates that about 40% of the prisoners currently housed at Silverdale don’t need to be there but are there because of underlying social issues. With the county spending about $100,000 a day on housing prisoners, a reduction in inmates could mean big savings for the county, Hammond said.

To accomplish that, he hopes to lean into “criminal justice reform social programs,” pushing inmates to get their GEDs and providing them with psychological and medical help.

In February, the Department of Justice granted the county $2.2 million to provide “intensive treatment,” services and housing subsidies for people who are homeless, have mental health issues and frequently need the attention of the area’s hospitals and law enforcement resources. The FUSE program, according to the county, is used by only 30 agencies in the nation, and the sheriff’s office has identified about 100 people to help under the program.

“I think we’re entering an age when the public in general expects more social programs involved in reentry for people who are in and out of jail, such as beefing up programs to help them get better education, so they won’t recidivate, programs that will help them get jobs, so they won’t recidivate, counseling programs to help them with their marriages and their personal life,” Hammond said.

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