Stop Ham. Co. Jail Expansion / Privatization

Through displacing people from their communities, nurturing a low-wage economy, and criminalizing and disenfranchising thousands of people, decision-makers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County are deepening poverty and creating the environment for crime and violence to thrive. The City and County’s strategy to address this reality centers on increasing the criminalization, incarceration, and physical/financial exploitation of Black, Latinx, and white working class people.

In this climate, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is aggressively pursuing the complete privatization of the county’s jails through Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the construction of a new, bigger jail.

Public Financial Management, Inc. (PFM Group), the consulting firm the county has paid to study the jail, has recommended the construction of a new 600+ bed addition to Silverdale Correctional Facility (the CCA-operated jail) to replace the County-operated facility in downtown Chattanooga. This new facility would allow the county to close the downtown jail- presumably freeing up prime real estate in the middle of the Tourism and “Innovation” districts.

While claiming that no decision has been made about privatization and that requests for proposals have not yet been issued, Mayor Coppinger stated in response to a question from Commissioner Boyd that revealing the details of the potential cost savings of privatization could “hinder some negotiations.” Further, PFM has been paid over $650,000 in consulting fees, and will receive a bonus if the County decides to expand privatization.

At an Orchard Knob community meeting in mid-2015, the Hamilton County Auditor Bill McGriff, who helped broker Hamilton County’s pioneering private prison contract with Corrections Corporation of America decades ago, stated in response to a question about the county’s lack of investment in inner city communities:

“The courts, jail, officers…For all those kids that don’t do well in school, we’ve got another place for them…so we do invest in your neighborhoods.”

This is the reality of Black and other marginalized people living in the “Best Town Ever.”

Many will take issue with the County’s plan primarily for the expanded reach of the private prison industry, but we believe this to be a narrow focus as the private prison industry, while growing, accounts for roughly 8% of the national prison population. We can not end mass-incarceration without dealing with its roots. We must dismantle the overarching system of increasing criminalization, over-policing and surveillance, displacement, and resource extraction from Black and working class communities which drives this system.

While community members and officials have correctly criticized the deteriorating physical condition of the downtown jail for over a decade, we know that the cracked and molding walls of the cage are not the root cause of routine human rights violations. The chronic overcrowding of these facilities, the neglect and lack of adequate physical and mental health care, and the prevalence of violence by police, jailers, and security are all the result of public policy.

County Commissioner Warren Mackey is on record stating that “If I ran the jail, you wouldn’t want to come. You wouldn’t get a hot meal. It would be overcrowded. It would be unsafe.” This portrays the jail’s current conditions and the institutional disregard for people’s civil and human rights.

We know that Black people are arrested at over twice the rate of non-Blacks in Chattanooga, and over four times that rate throughout the county in municipalities like Red Bank and East Ridge- areas largely developed during white flight out of the city and increasingly occupied by working class folks displaced from the urban core. One result is that Black folks are drastically overrepresented in Silverdale Correctional Facility and the County Jail (although 20% of the County population, Black people make up over 40% of the population of Silverdale).

We know that the vast majority of those held in these facilities are not there for committing violent crimes, but for technical and probation violations and misdemeanors.

Hamilton County Courts also pride themselves on funding the court system through tickets and fines. Mayor Coppinger has repeatedly stated that the County has nothing to do with the how or why people are incarcerated, but pushing for full privatization is a decision to further institutionalize a profit motive for criminalization and incarceration.

Our area’s unequal development and long, unique history with CCA increases the strategic importance of this fight. According to the Sentencing Project, “The modern private prison business first emerged… in 1984 when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee. This marked the first time that any government in the country had contracted out the complete operation of a jail to a private operator.”

CCA is known for spending massive amounts of money on lobbying and political contributions to ensure legislation that keeps their beds filled. Just in the last 5 years alone, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, former Chattanooga mayor and current U.S. Senator Bob Corker, U.S. House Representative Scott Desjarlais, State legislators Lamar Alexander, Bo Watson, Gerald McCormick, Chuck Fleischmann, and County Mayor Coppinger himself have all received campaign contributions from CCA.

We oppose the addition of any new private or public facility with added capacity. We must invest in community development that does not displace people and services which are known to decrease poverty and crime rates rather than continue to massively invest in locking our neighbors and community members in cages.

We believe the answers to overcrowding in our jails are found in decriminalizing poverty and most non-violent crimes, economic investment that builds community wealth instead of displacing people, and community-led intervention. The answers are not found in prioritizing more jail space and profiting off of the bodies of our neighbors and family members. Hamilton County should increase funding and access to physical and mental health care in their correctional facilities and in general as an alternative to criminalization in the first place. They should increase funding to the public defender’s office and embrace community-based restorative justice models.

We demand that Hamilton County and all of the municipalities within it take decisive action to end racial disparities in their arrests and incarceration and end the regular use of excessive force in and outside of their jails. While we do not believe this will happen without effective community control of and divestment from the police, it must be a priority.

This important fight stands at the intersection of Chattanooga’s crises and its image. More jail capacity is needed to continue the war of displacement on Black and working class communities. The increasing criminalization and incarceration has already overloaded our jails and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars which could’ve been allocated to community-based solutions to crime and violence with far better records of success than policing- education, youth and family development, mental health, economic development without displacement, etc.