Tenn. sheriff: Jail, facilities need to grow with county
There are 25 open positions at the Hamilton County jail, down from 60 when the sheriff was elected; the sheriff attributes that to a salary raise
By Ellen Gerst
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — As Hamilton County grows, Sheriff Austin Garrett said its jail and sheriff’s facilities need to grow with it.
Garrett talked Monday to members of the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club, a Republican group, about pay raises at the Sheriff’s Office, drug education and the planned expansion at the county’s jail. He said he told the club’s president, Marty Von Schaaf, that he wanted to wait to talk to the group once he had some successes to discuss, nearly a year after taking office.
“I offered weeks ago to Marty that I would host this at the jail and feed breakfast, lunch or dinner,” Garrett joked at the start of his talk. “He said, ‘absolutely not.’”
The Hamilton County Jail, until recently known as the Silverdale Detention Center, is in the midst of an expansion and modernization project, Garrett said. The upgrades will address existing maintenance needs and add more spaces for inmates. The first phase of that project should be done by December, Garrett said Monday.
“My corrections employees are anxiously waiting. They’d like to get out of that cramped space that they’re in out there,” the sheriff said. “It was not designed for what they’re doing ... the work environment’s not great.”
The jail can hold around 1,200 inmates, depending on staffing, and as of Monday morning was holding 1,140 people.
“We work every day trying to get those numbers down,” Garrett told Pachyderm Club members. “Eleven hundred people sitting out there in the jail is way too many people for a county this size, to me.”
The vast majority of those people are waiting for their cases to be heard and haven’t been convicted. But some have been sentenced and are waiting to be taken to a state prison, Garrett said. It costs about $75 per day to house one inmate, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The office works with court liaisons, judges and prosecutors to identify low-level offenders who could be released before a trial. That’s usually reserved for people with nonviolent charges and without a record of breaking probation, Garrett said.
Judges will typically require GPS monitoring or other conditions when letting someone out before a trial, he said. The Sheriff’s Office is also looking into a texting system that could remind people of court dates, to avoid additional charges and potential jail time for failing to appear, Garrett said by phone Monday.
Down the line, Garrett wants to explore opening a mental health-specific facility to cater to people with criminal charges who need mental treatment, the sheriff said. Plans for a maximum-security facility at the jail are still in the works, Garrett said.
He’s also considering a dedicated juvenile facility for people under 18 being charged as adults. Right now, the eight underage inmates at the jail have to be kept completely separate from the adult population according to state law, he said by phone.
There are 25 open positions at the jail, down from 60 when he was elected, Garrett said. He largely attributed that to a salary raise approved by the county in 2022 that makes his office one of the highest-paying law enforcement agencies in the state.
Aside from the jail, Garrett said he plans to address other Sheriff’s Office facilities with a 25-year plan. Garrett hopes to bring employees under one roof, instead of being scattered at offices across the county, he said Monday.
On Monday, Garrett also highlighted the Sheriff’s Office’s school resource deputy program, set to be fully staffed for the first time in years, and its DARE drug education programs. Around 160 students at two schools, East Hamilton Middle and the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, completed the program last year, and another class is scheduled for this year at Loftis Middle School, Garrett said.
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