County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Tuesday the county is looking into selling the workhouse property at Silverdale to the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) that now operates the facility.
He said CCA would then build a new facility at the site that would have at least 600 beds for inmates.
That would allow the county to close the high-rise downtown jail on Walnut Street that numerous grand juries have recommended be replaced. That jail has drawn complaints since it was built.
County Mayor Coppinger said the county plans to hire the PFM government financial advising firm to study the deal.
County Mayor Coppinger said, "We will see if this will work, or if we go back to the drawing board."
He said CCA would also add space at Silverdale for additional juvenile defendants.
The county has 132 correctional officers at the jail. The county mayor said there would be efforts to allow them to shift to CCA.
The current county contract with CCA expires next April. CCA has operated the workhouse for the county since 1984.
County Mayor Coppinger said, "They can operate it much more cheaply than we can."
The move, he said, would remove the county from any liability regarding prisoners.
Sheriff Jim Hammond, who now oversees the jail, said, "Each year, for at least the past decade, the Hamilton County Grand Jury’s report to the judges, mayor and County Commission has stressed the need for another jail. Our current jail that was built in 1976 is badly in need of repairs and is also too labor intensive. The current jail is 39 years old and of a linear design, which is no longer efficient to operate. It is simply costing us and our citizens too much money to operate.
"That does not mean, however, that the sale of the workhouse to CCA and the closing of the current jail is a planned event at this time. What it does mean is that we need a professional study group to determine what alternatives and options are available and cost effective for the jail. That study would determine our current and future needs for space and the cost of building a new jail. A study like that may take up to a year and then building a new jail would take at least another 12-18 months."
Sheriff Hammond also said, "Tennessee sheriffs are constitutional officers and are mandated by state law to operate a jail in their counties. My responsibility is to safely and humanly operate our jail, keeping the prisoners safe and keeping our citizens safe.”
He added, "I am quite clear in stressing that whatever negotiations take place, the future careers of my staff in the jail is non-negotiable.”