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Violence in Tennessee Prisons up 20 Percent Under New Commissioner

On September 18, 2012 the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, released data indicating that levels of violence in Tennessee state prisons had increased approximately 20 percent since Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam in January 2011.

According to statistical data obtained from the TDOC pursuant to public records requests, the number of violent incidents in three categories – prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and institutional disturbances – increased significantly during the first 18 months of Commissioner Schofield’s tenure.

Based on TDOC data from January 2010 through June 2012, the average number of assaults on prison staff systemwide increased from 55 per month in 2010, the year before Commissioner Schofield was appointed, to 67.67 per month for the first six months of 2012 – an increase of 23%.

The average rate of violent incidents per 1,000 prisoners increased from 15.57 per month in 2010 to 18.56 per month as of June 2012, or an 18% increase. And the average number of violent incidents per facility per month increased from 22.17 in 2010 to 26.24 for the first half of 2012 – an 18.3 percent increase.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann, who served time in Tennessee prisons in the 1990s prior to his release in 1999. “If you look at it from a business perspective, if the commissioner were running a company, and while he was running that company things got 20 percent worse across the board, he would be out of a job.”

The escalating amount of violence in Tennessee state prisons coincides with a number of new policies implemented by Commissioner Schofield, many of which are perceived as punitive and unwarranted by prisoners and even some prison staff. The policy changes include:

• Prisoners are required to walk in a single-file line under staff escort on the prison compound, a specified distance apart, and are not allowed to talk.

• Prisoners are not allowed to have their hands in their pockets while under escort, even during cold weather, and the TDOC has not issued gloves to all prisoners.

• Daily cell inspections are held in which prisoners have to stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected.

• Property rules have been repeatedly changed, and property items that prisoners were previously allowed to own have been prohibited.

• 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; if it is raining they must stand in the rain.

• Most recently, prisoners are required to be standing by their bunks in their cells during morning count, which is held at 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.; this was not done previously.

“Questions that need to be answered include why levels of violence are increasing, whether that increase is a result of the new policies implemented by Commissioner Schofield, and if not, what is behind the escalating violence. Also, most importantly, why the Commissioner apparently has been unable to curb violence in state prisons, particularly against staff,” Friedmann said.

He added there is concern that the new policies will lead to even more violence, including riots like the ones that swept through Tennessee prisons in 1985, and that the TDOC appears to be anticipating this by training a large number of guards as tactical officers and equipping them with riot gear.

“Rather than preparing for riots that may occur, the TDOC should be seeking solutions to the increasing levels of violence in an effort to prevent any riots from happening in the first place,” noted HRDC director Paul Wright.

Since the Tennessee legislature dissolved the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections in June 2011 there has been no direct oversight over the state prison system, except through the Governor’s office and the standing legislative Judiciary Committees.

“Both Governor Haslam and the chairpersons of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees were notified of rising levels of violence in Tennessee state prisons in March 2012, including increased violence against staff; they received copies of a letter that was sent to Commissioner Schofield to that effect. However, they expressed no interest,” said Friedmann.

The letter sent to Commissioner Schofield on March 8, 2012 was signed by four organizations: the Human Rights Defense Center, Reconciliation, TN CURE and the Tennessee Alliance for Reform. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.20]. While the Commissioner responded to the letter, according to Friedmann he “did not address or respond to the gravamen of our concerns,” i.e., whether his new policies “are resulting in increased levels of violence in Tennessee’s prison system.”

The TDOC is well aware of the rise in violence; for example, in a June 2011 internal report state prison officials noted, “The June 2011 violent incident rate is greater (17.7%) than the May 2011 rate and is also greater (19.2%) than the June 2010 rate.” And in a November 2011 internal report the TDOC indicated that the “violent incident rate is higher (8.7%) than the October 2011 rate and is higher (25.0%) than the November 2010 rate.”

Despite the TDOC’s own reports and data related to violent incidents, state prison officials denied there has been an increase in violence, citing outdated statistics that cover only the first six months after Schofield was appointed.

At least some prison employees are reacting to the policy changes and violence by retiring or resigning; four wardens have retired or quit since January 2011.According to former TDOC associate warden Penny Tucker, who retired after serving 27 years in the state’s prison system, Commissioner Schofield’s “lack of listening to and getting rid of his most experienced people has a lot to do with violence going up.”

Sources: HRDC press release,

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