Grand Jury Cites Critical Staff Shortage At The Hamilton County Jail

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Regular Grand Jury, in a final report, cited a critical shortage of staff at the Hamilton County Jail.

Like many other grand juries before them, the panel headed by Jimmy Anderson also decried the condition of the jail on Walnut Street. County officials plan to eventually phase out the jail.

The report says, "It was a great concern to learn during the tour that jail officials are working mandated overtime and have been doing so for approximately a year. Research from studies completed in correctional environments have indicated that excessive overtime is a factor that leads to higher staff turnover rates.

"The serious shortage of facility staff has also affected the well-being of inmates since there is not enough staff to supervise outdoor recreational activities.  Inmates are more likely to cause problems for jail staff when denied the opportunity to engage in positive recreational time."

The panel said the jail "is so old that the floors appear warped and attempts to repair these floors have not been completed to an acceptable standard. There were leaks in the ceiling in the chapel. The chaplain reported that the baptismal tank was non-operational due to underlying structural concerns.

"Overcrowding is an issue and we observed inmates asleep on cell floors.  Female inmates are not currently housed at the Hamilton County jail."

Here is the full report:

 Introduction:

The grand jury was made up of a diverse group of individuals who represented a broad cross section of residents in Hamilton County, Tennessee.  Included in the group were persons of different ages, gender, economic strata, professionals and retirees.  Such a diverse combination lends to an unbiased evaluation of the cases presented to the grand jury.

Representatives from various law enforcement agencies presented incident reports to the grand jury and answered questions concerning these reports. Afterwards, a vote to “true bill” or “no bill” was decided by the grand jury in regards to each case heard. Mr. Jerry Sloan, assistant district attorney and Mr. Jimmy Anderson, grand jury foreman provided leadership and counsel for the members of the grand jury during this process.

Judges and law enforcement representatives provided comprehensive information to the members of the grand jury regarding judicial proceedings and law enforcement practices in Hamilton County, Tennessee.

We, the grand jury would like to thank the judges from the criminal court for sharing how they manage their assigned criminal dockets as well as special program court timetables.  In order to participate in a special program court, participants must be eligible for alternate sentencing.   The purposes of the special court programs are to ease prison overcrowding and save tax monies.  Judge Steelman oversees the probation violation court docket. Participants in this program have committed misdemeanor crimes and are able to engage in community service. Once participants satisfies the court ordered criteria, then the judge can close the case.  Judge Greenholtz supervises the Drug Recovery court docket and he was pleased to report that 97% of graduates are not repeat offenders.  The Drug Court program has approximately 70 participants that meet weekly and the program runs from 18-24 months.   Judge Poole administers the mental health court that works with participants who have diagnosed with medical conditions that meet eligibility criteria.  This special court program meets every Wednesday and participants check in with their support team.  This court program also targets to serve military veterans who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have committed misdemeanor crimes. Our military veterans deserve the opportunity to engage in rehabilitative programs that enable them to transition back into their community. We feel that these programs are a positive expenditure of grant and tax payer monies.  We would also like to thank the representatives of the law enforcement agencies for their professionalism.

Local General Recommendations:

All police jurisdictions would benefit by developing strategies to improve coordination of case presentations to the grand jury.

1. Designated officers:  A lot of time is wasted waiting around for law enforcement officers to show for Grand jury hearings. Police jurisdictions such as Chattanooga and Soddy Daisy have a designated officer that presents the affidavits to the grand jury. This approach is very time efficient and should be considered and utilized by the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and other police jurisdictions.

2. The District Attorney’s (DA) office needs to train their staff on use of the computer software and online program(s) utilized by local law enforcement agencies (WATSON and evidence.com). Such training would allow DA staff to access desired materials for their cases and decrease errors in paperwork. This training would also assist the DA’s office in time management of cases and improve communication among agencies. The resulting increased efficiency would benefit all persons involved, as well as the grand jury.

3. Video conferencing should be considered for presenting cases. 

Tours of Hamilton County Detention Centers and Jail:

Positives:

Silverdale Detention Center:

When we visited on March 18th, the facility was clean and the general environment was calm.  New administrative staff have implemented positive behavioral reinforcements that allow for improved management of inmate behavior. The assistant warden reported that incidents of negative behaviors have dropped from approximately 300 occurrences to 169 incidents. The wardens have hired educational staff and plan to continue rehabilitative educational measures. Unfortunately, staff was in training and specific information regarding programs was unavailable. Administrative staff also allows volunteers to assist in rehabilitative efforts by conducting various classes, such as yoga.

Needs:

A. Additional funding is needed for building expansions and remodels in order to address the following needs:

1. The current space allocated for female offenders is overcrowded.

2. The Intake/Transfer area needs to be reconfigured and possibly expanded. Incoming and outgoing inmates need to be separated in order to cut down on contraband introduction and for individual safety.  Reconfiguring the space will allow officials to better manage inmate behavior.

B.  Installation of Vendengine kiosks: The following benefits would be gained from installing the kiosks.

1. Reduce introduction of contraband through physical mail.

2. Increase communication between family members and inmates, therefore reducing recidivism.

3. Grievance Management System: Inmates are able to file electronic grievances.

4. Commissary Ordering Platform.

5. Allows for law enforcement officials to access inmate contact information and monitor electronic messages for investigative purposes.

C. Additional funding for administrative staff to increase the amount of educational, mental health services, and self-advocacy training available for all inmates. The majority of inmates housed at Silverdale will ultimately be released back into their communities and need to be prepared for that upcoming transition.

D.  Require CoreCivic to employ an “inmate advocate” staff member.

E. Staffing/Qualified applicants for open positions.

In order to attract qualified applicants for vacant positions, local officials should be given additional monies to use for signing and tenure bonuses. 

Hamilton County Jail:

Positives:

Even though the Hamilton County jail was clean, it is outdated. The Hamilton County jail has the Vendengine kiosks installed throughout the jail. Wardens verified that there has been a reduction of contraband coming through the mail. We did see inmates using the kiosks.  Inmates have the opportunity to participate in Chaplaincy services.

In January of 2019, Sheriff Hammond received approval from local officials to start a mental health program within the Hamilton County jail that is grant funded. The desired result of this initiative is for inmates get access to mental health services and continue these services when released.

 

Sheriff Hammond hires high school graduates to work in the jail in order to determine if they want to pursue a career in law enforcement. We believe that this practice ultimately saves tax payer monies and contributes to employee retention.

Even though Vendengine kiosks have many positive features, some jurors expressed concern about the rates that the company charges inmate for their use.

Needs:

A. Staffing:

1. There is a critical shortage of staff:

It was a great concern to learn during the tour that jail officials are working mandated overtime and have been doing so for approximately a year. Research from studies completed in correctional environments have indicated that excessive overtime is a factor that leads to higher staff turnover rates.

The serious shortage of facility staff has also affected the well-being of inmates since there is not enough staff to supervise outdoor recreational activities.  Inmates are more likely to cause problems for jail staff when denied the opportunity to engage in positive recreational time.

2. Additional funding for staff recruitment and training is a critical need.  Strategies for increasing employee retention needs to be addressed by the current administrative staff.  

B. Physical Facility:

1. The Hamilton County jail facility is so old that the floors appear warped and attempts to repair these floors have not been completed to an acceptable standard. There were leaks in the ceiling in the chapel.       The chaplain reported that the baptismal tank was non-operational due to underlying structural concerns.

2. Overcrowding is an issue and we observed inmates asleep on cell floors.  Female inmates are not currently housed at the Hamilton County jail.  

The current proposed plan to expand the Silverdale facility and close the downtown jail is justified given staff shortages, facility overcrowding, facility age, and the need for additional rehabilitative services for inmates. 

Juvenile Division:

While visiting the Hamilton County juvenile court and rehabilitative facility, we had the opportunity to hear from Judge Robert D. Philyaw. The Judge’s court docket consists of cases involving child protective services, violent offenders and transfers to the adult courts. He also oversees a program called Teen Youth Court (TYC). This is a collaborative effort between Hamilton County Schools and the Hamilton County Juvenile Court to teach participates about their local judicial system. TYC is teen driven and family focused. After juvenile first-time offenders admit to the low-level offense with which they are charged, they are given the opportunity to have their peers determine the consequence and/or sentence. Peer decision-makers use positive peer pressure and restorative justice principles. The offender’s family are also involved in determining the consequence. The juvenile offenders are given the opportunity and responsibility for healing the harm their actions caused.

 

The passage of Tennessee House Bill No. 2376 will strengthen the ability of local school systems to intervene before truant students turn to delinquency. Chronic truancy has been shown to be a risk factor for drug use, delinquency, suicide attempts, and can lead to adult criminality. Juvenile court officials need to support local school efforts in combating truancy.

Positives:

The facility was clean and kitchen staff shared how they planned healthy meals/snacks for the youth temporarily held there.  

Educational needs are addressed by a teacher employed by Hamilton County Court System. The teacher collaborates with the detained juvenile’s teachers from the Hamilton County School system to ensure continuation of educational services.

Needs:

1. Judge Philyaw expressed the necessity for a long term rehabilitative facility located in the East Tennessee- Valley Region. The nearest long-term state juvenile facility is located outside of Memphis, Tennessee. The long distance travel is a hardship for single parents and low income families. Another long term, privately owned facility is located in Dandridge, Tennessee.

2. There is a want for local rehabilitative programs as well as grant monies to develop local programing.   

3. The Tennessee General Assembly must strengthen language in current juvenile justice laws concerning violent juvenile offenders.

http://tnyouthcourts.org

https://www.chattanoogan.com/2016/10/14/334042/Hamilton-County-Youth-Court-Celebrates.aspx

https://www.tn.gov/dcs/program-areas/juvenile-justice/ydc.html

https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2018/01/18/time-has-come-reform-juvenile-justice-tennessee/1027741001/

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI): Forensic Services Division-Crime Labs:

For many of the cases, DNA and/or blood lab results were not available due to the backlog at the TBI crime labs. We are concerned about the long turnaround time that it take to process these lab results.

While we realize that TBI has taken steps to address crime lab backlog by obtaining a backlog reduction program grant, we feel that more could be done.

Source: https://nij.gov/funding/awards/Pages/awards-list.aspx                                                                                    

https://www.newschannel5.com/news/long-delays-for-testing-of-evidence-in-criminal-cases

We as a group of voters request that our legislative leadership consider drafting a bill that will tackle rape kit reform and appropriate funding to address following issues.

1. Create and implement a statewide tracking system: Verify that TBI labs, law enforcement agencies, and hospitals utilize a common system to track rape kits. Include a mechanism for rape survivors to check the status of their kits throughout the process, from collection to analysis.

2. Require all three TBI laboratories to detail any backlog of untested rape kits in the annual report to the Tennessee General Assembly.

3. Mandate testing of all backlogged kits and provide for victim’s right to notice concerning the status of their kit.

4. Mandate a 30 day turnaround time for rape kits of victims who are under the age of 16. A 60 day turnaround time for minors aged 16-18.

Conclusion:

Serving on a Grand Jury has certainly enhanced our understanding of the daily operations of the judicial system and law enforcement procedures in Hamilton County, Tennessee.  During the January-April 2019 term the Hamilton County Regular Grand Jury heard witness testimony for 585 cases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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