Although the title “The Great Dissenter” was applied to Justice John Marshall Harlan of the United States Supreme Court, for his strong solitary dissent in the landmark decision of Plessy v. Ferguson on May 18, 1896, that upheld racial segregation, Hamilton County has also had a “great dissenter.”
Prior to the creation of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the “privatization” of the Hamilton County Workhouse in 1983, the care and incarceration of inmates was at the antiquated jail on Walnut Street and the workhouse farm in Silverdale.
After spending millions of taxpayers’ money to build a new justice center and jail, CCA entered the picture with the promise to “provide drug treatment and other services to inmates that can lower the chance that additional crime will not be committed after release.” More importantly, it promised reduction in costs to taxpayers for incarceration of felons convicted of crimes and also service of sentence at a local confinement location.
With an impressive list of well paid and connected lobbyists at both the state and local level, CCA operated the Silverdale facility for 36 years beginning on October 15, 1984 until it exercised its option to withdraw from the premises within 180 days in the summer of 2020. Since then, the political (and expensive) football has been kicked back to Republican Sheriff Jim Hammond who has commenced a rehabilitation of the location with new technology programs prior to expiration of the last two years of his final term of office.
With the help of lobbyist Betty Anderson (wife of Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Jimmy Naifeh), Governor Don Sundquist, Democratic State Senator Ward Crutchfield and Hamilton County Commission Democrats Bob Long and Jack Mayfield, unsuccessful Republican Congressional candidate Harold Coker and others, CCA became the poster child of the “private prison” movement that enriched its stockholders and its supporters and had no problem of tacitly avoiding “conflict of interest” allegations by their critics. Acceptance of lucrative campaign contributions by CCA and its many friends and supporters by local and state politicians were readily received.
Said benefits, according to Howard, included giving one fellow commissioner’s support being rewarded with a contract for his landscaping business, another acquired a contract for their exterminating business and a third a contract for their moving business. Others may have acquired other benefits that escaped close public scrutiny.
The late Democratic Majority Leader Senator Ward Crutchfield saw no problem in being a paid assistant Hamilton County attorney and to also “represent CCA in negotiations with the contract under which the private firm operates the Silverdale penal farm.” However, the Chattanooga Times accompanied by a series of political cartoons that were critical of Ward, Harold and other Hamilton County Commissioners, provided interesting political fodder for the public.
Fortunately, the Hamilton County Commission had one other consistent dissenting vote in Howard P. Sompayrac, Jr. who was a graduate of Central High School, University of Chattanooga, military veteran, 40-year employee of DuPont as an industrial relations specialist, and possessor of a record of public service to the community, and recipient of many local and state honors.
For 16 years Howard Sompayrac single-handedly argued against the “privatization of the correction system in Hamilton County.” He ultimately would run unsuccessfully against “term limits” advocate Zach Wamp and give up his District 3 seat in county government.
He consistently tried to refute the CCA allegations that they would “save the taxpayers of Hamilton County millions of dollars” and would further “protect the public with secure and tough law and order programs.” At the same time, they would be providing the inmates with drug treatment and other services that could lower the rate of additional crimes that could be committed after release back into society.
Around 2000 Howard wrote a 132-page paperback novel titled “Private Prisons: The Result of Corporate Greed, Public Fears and Political Cowardice” which he claimed was “costly, ineffective, illegal, immoral and unconstitutional."
It is serious in scope and addresses how Hamilton County became involved in the privatization program and has its good and bad aspects. It is also humorous as it also contains many editorial cartoons by Bruce Plante from the Chattanooga Times accompanied by the scalding editorials that further attacked the alleged secrecy and inefficiency of CCA. He included a 16- page chapter that contained 60 specific comments and criticisms of CCA that deserve political scrutiny.
If a copy can be found or located on the world wide web sources, it is worthwhile reading.
While Howard Sompayrac’s one man battle continued until his death, the issue of the housing and treatment of inmates in our county remains today.
Perhaps the current County Commission will benefit from the errors of the past and do due diligence in the future of fairly protecting the interests of the taxpayers and the civil rights of prisoners?
To that extent the actions of Justice Harlan and Howard Sompayrac, Jr. have similar historical meanings!
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