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HRDC, Other Organizations Send Joint Letter to Tennessee DOC Commissioner

On March 8, 2012, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC – the parent organization of Prison Legal News), in conjunction with three other organizations, sent a letter to Derrick Schofield, Commissioner of the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections (TDOC), regarding policy changes that Schofield had implemented.

Within months after being appointed TDOC Commissioner in January 2011, Schofield instituted a number of policies that were widely perceived as being punitive. They included:

• Requiring prisoners to walk in a single-file line under escort by prison staff, a specified distance apart. Prisoners are not allowed to talk while under escort.

• Forbidding prisoners from keeping their hands in their pockets while under escort, even during cold weather, although the TDOC had not issued gloves to all prisoners.

• Requiring prisoners to be neatly dressed, to keep their cells in an orderly condition with beds made, and to stand at attention during morning inspections without speaking, engaging in any other activity or making eye contact with the inspectors. This includes prisoners who work night shifts and do not get off work until early in the morning, yet must be out of bed for inspection.

• When prisoners are called to meals, they are required to line up and wait outside until it is their turn to go to the dining hall, even when it is raining.

• Requiring prisoners to keep their property in specific locations in their cells, while property storage rules were changed multiple times in an apparently arbitrary manner, leading to confusion and frustration among both prisoners and staff.

• Prisoners may no longer possess coat hangers, which makes it difficult to dry wet towels because nothing is allowed to be hung on cell walls. Permissible items on the property list were changed and rather than being grandfathered in, items no longer allowed were confiscated or had to be mailed out.

• Requiring prisoners to greet high-ranking staff members with designated phrases (such as “good morning warden”); staff members were likewise required to recite specific phrases when encountering certain administrative officials or visitors (e.g., the institutional motto).

• Curtailing arts and crafts programs at some facilities, including in-cell arts and crafts, and restricting access to musical instruments.

HRDC and three Tennessee-based criminal justice organizations, Reconciliation Ministries, TN CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) and the Tennessee Alliance for Reform, stated in their joint letter to Commissioner Schofield that the policy changes may have resulted in “significant unintended consequences.”

At least four TDOC wardens have resigned or retired since Schofield was appointed Commissioner, some due to the implementation of the new policies. Further, a number of TDOC staff, from the warden level down, contacted HRDC to comment on the adverse impact the policy changes have had on both prisoners and TDOC employees. Those staff members did not want to be identified due to fear of retaliation.

HRDC and the other organizations that wrote to Schofield expressed concern “that the militaristic policy changes ... are causing an increase in violence and misconduct among prisoners while failing to facilitate the rehabilitation of prisoners and negatively impacting the safety of both inmates and staff. Indeed, if some of the policy changes are intended to improve safety and security at TDOC facilities, they may be having the exact opposite effect.”

Months before the joint letter was sent to Commissioner Schofield, HRDC had filed public records requests with the TDOC for data related to prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and institutional disturbances at state prisons for calendar years 2009, 2010 and 2011.

According to the data produced by the TDOC, Tennessee prisons experienced a higher average number and rate of violent incidents after Schofield was appointed Commissioner in January 2011. For example, in 2010 the average number of violent incidents per month system-wide at the 14 facilities housing Tennessee state prisoners (including three privately-operated prisons) was 310.4, with an average of 22.17 incidents per facility per month. The average rate of violent incidents per 1,000 prisoner population in the TDOC was 15.57 in 2010.

From January 2011 to December 2011, during Schofield’s first year serving as TDOC Commissioner, the average number of violent incidents per month system-wide increased to 329.33; the average number of incidents per facility per month increased to 23.52; and the average rate of violent incidents per 1,000 prisoner population rose to 16.42. Significantly, the average number of prisoner-on-staff assaults, which was fairly stable from 2009 to 2010 at 54.75 and 55.0 incidents per month, respectively, jumped to an average 62.16 incidents per month during 2011.

In their joint letter to Schofield, HRDC and the other organizations remarked, “to the extent that the policy changes you have implemented are contributing to higher levels of violence, they are endangering both prisoners and staff members, which we believe is unacceptable and deserving of review. As just one example, in May 2011 a female TDOC guard at the Turney Center prison was stabbed over a dozen times by two prisoners and hospitalized – a very rare occurrence in the TDOC.”

Tennessee prison officials were aware of the increase in violent incidents under Schofield’s tenure. For example, an internal TDOC memo on “Class A & Selected Other Incidents” noted that “[d]uring June 2011, assaults on staff incidents rate increased by 11.9% from the previous month and is 60.2% greater than June 2010. June’s rate is also 59.0% higher than the FY 2010 monthly average.”

The punitive policy changes instituted by Schofield are similar to policies in Georgia’s prison system – where Schofield was employed prior to being appointed TDOC Commissioner. The joint letter sent to Schofield noted that “Georgia’s prison system is no panacea,” and that his policy changes, which are apparently intended to make Tennessee prisons more like Georgia’s, “ignore significant problems that have occurred in the Georgia DOC.”

For example, on November 25, 2011, Georgia prison officials lost control at Hancock State Prison; a dozen prisoners were injured and two were airlifted to local hospitals. Prisoners set fires, broke into an administrative office and caused extensive property damage at the facility. That incident occurred just days after three prisoners were hospitalized and a guard was injured during a riot at Telfair State Prison. A prisoner was killed at Smith State Prison on November 28, 2011.

And on February 17, 2012, a federal lawsuit filed by prisoners who claimed they were beaten, kicked and knocked unconscious by guards at Hays State Prison settled for $93,000. See: Nwakanma v. Clark, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:11-cv-00199-HLM.

Previously, in December 2010, prisoners at seven Georgia prisons staged a coordinated protest seeking improved living conditions – including better food, more educational programs and various policy changes. The protest resulted in lockdowns at several facilities and retaliatory beatings by staff that led to the indictment and arrest of seven guards at Macon State Prison. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.24].

The joint letter sent to Commissioner Schofield by HRDC, Reconciliation, TN CURE and the Tennessee Alliance for Reform concluded, “we do not want to see similar violent incidents occur in Tennessee’s prison system due to policy changes implemented by your administration that do not accomplish the goals of institutional safety and security or the rehabilitation of prisoners.”

Copies of the letter were delivered to Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee state lawmakers, including the chairpersons of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

Sources: Letter to TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield (March 8, 2012); Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Related legal case

Nwakanma v. Clark