In just over a month, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office will take over a local prison that’s been privately run since it was built nearly three decades ago. Under pressure from councilmembers and activists, CoreCivic decided to cut its contract short.
Now, the sheriff is scrambling to get ready for some major changes.
On October 4 at 6 a.m., Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall will do something he’s never done before: manage a prison. He was given just three months to prepare.
Though Hall has plenty of experience with jails, he says running a prison presents new challenges. He compares it to the difference between an emergency room and a nursing home.
“It’s two totally different environments once you get inside,” Hall said. “They both are in the correctional model. But they perform two vastly different functions.”
In county jails, people are constantly streaming in and out, and many haven’t even gone to trial. The Metro Detention Facility, on the other hand, houses people who have been convicted of a low-level felony in Davidson County and are serving up to six years.
Hall says prisons don’t really fit in his job description. But when councilmembers said they wanted CoreCivic out, he assured them he could do it, at least for a while. In the long term, he thinks it might be best for the state government to run the prison.
Meanwhile, Hall says his office is in transition mode. That means setting up Metro benefits and salaries for CoreCivic employees, transferring over food and healthcare contracts, taking inventory of everything in the facility and learning how to use a new security system. Next month, staff training begins.
“Although they still work for CoreCivic, we will set up training programs throughout each week in September and require of their employees to come to training, so they can pick up on some of the language and terminology and the policy changes that we have,” Hall says. “We need everybody singing from the same hymn book.”
Hall says about 95% of CoreCivic’s staff will stay on at the facility as sheriff’s office employees. They’ll be joined by about 40 or 50 DCSO workers.
And the sheriff says his office will be relying on those CoreCivic staff to help them learn their way around a new space, especially given the quick handover.
In a letter to Hall, CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger wrote in early July that he recognized “the need for an orderly transition of facility operations, but cannot agree to be strung along while Metro takes calculated steps to end our partnership.” He said some council members were pushing an “ideologically driven” agenda that was “void of facts” and that the company would no longer “be used as a punching bag by political opportunists who do not value the services we provide.”
Hall, however, says he’s not for or against private prisons. He wishes Metro had taken time to do more research about the costs and benefits of for-profit correctional facilities before rushing such a drastic change.
“It took us three years to overhaul the pretrial release program. And it took us five years to build a mental health center,” Hall says. “I think there are ways to reform our entire system. But I would hope you would do it in a more proactive way, moving forward.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.