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Tennessee DOC Accused of Covering Up Violent Incidents

As previously reported in Prison Legal News, the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) has been experiencing higher levels of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence since Commissioner Derrick Schofield was appointed in January 2011.

The increased violence coincides with a number of policy changes implemented by Schofield that are widely perceived as being punitive and militaristic – including requiring prisoners to walk in a single-file line under staff escort, a specified distance apart, in silence, with their hands out of their pockets (even in very cold weather); daily cell inspections during which prisoners must stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected; stricter property rules; and standing or sitting counts held at 5:00 to 6:00am. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.34; April 2012, p.20].

According to data obtained by PLN through public records requests, from January 2011 through June 2012, the overall number of violent incidents in TDOC facilities has increased approximately 20 percent from the year before Schofield was appointed TDOC Commissioner. He was previously employed in Georgia’s prison system.

Following a September 18, 2012 press release by the Human Rights Defense Center – PLN’s parent organization – concerning rising levels of violence in Tennessee state prisons, PLN began receiving letters from both prisoners and prison staff indicating that the TDOC was covering-up violent incidents by either not issuing disciplinary write-ups to prisoners who engaged in violence, or issuing write-ups for non-violent offenses.

According to a prisoner at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, “your efforts to bring attention to the increased violence in TN prisons has seemingly caused the administration to begin covering up violent incidents. Recently ... two inmates in my unit, on separate occasions were assaulted by other inmates at work. One of these incidents involved a deadly weapon.... All four inmates involved were placed on pending investigation (PI) status and placed in the hole.... On the occasion involving the deadly weapon the inmates were held on PI for three days. On the other occasion, the inmates were held for five days. On both occasions the inmates were released [from PI] with no disciplinaries issued.”

PLN also was contacted by several prisoners and TDOC employees regarding an incident that occurred at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) on October 9, 2012. That incident reportedly involved multiple prisoners who assaulted prison staff, including the facility’s warden, Jerry Lester, during a morning cell inspection. Shortly afterwards, all Tennessee prisons were placed on temporary lockdown.

PLN filed a public records request with the TDOC for documents related to the WTSP incident, and inspected the responsive records in December 2012. The incident reports were skimpy on details but indicated that nine prisoners were involved in an altercation that “resulted in the assault on staff.”

According to the reports, multiple prisoners in Unit 3A pod approached staff members, including Assistant Warden (AWO) Robert Henry, “in a threatening manner as to cause injury.” Staff responded by spraying them with pepper spray. At least three prison employees, including AWO Henry, Robert Fine and Lisa Brooks, were hit with pepper spray during the fracas. The prisoners were identified as gang members and one report stated they “acted in concert ... in their assault on staff.” Another report noted that one prisoner had pushed AWO Henry “in the chest area,” while a separate document stated “a fight broke out” during the morning inspection.

Although multiple sources indicated that Warden Lester was involved and had been injured, none of the records produced by the TDOC specifically stated that he was present. The TDOC refused to produce video footage of the WTSP incident pursuant to a public records request.

All nine prisoners implicated in the incident were transferred to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

However, those prisoners were not charged with a violent disciplinary offense; rather, they received write-ups for participation in Security Threat Group (STG) activity – which, according to TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter, is considered a non-violent disciplinary charge. Thus, although there was an incident involving nine prisoners that resulted in an “assault on staff” and a “fight,” with the prisoners being pepper sprayed and later transferred to RMSI to be placed in segregation, they were not charged with assault or other violent disciplinary offenses.

This appears to validate other reports that prison officials are downgrading or misclassifying violent incidents so that data entered on TOMIS, the TDOC’s internal computer system which tracks prison-related information, doesn’t reflect an increasing level of violence under Commissioner Schofield’s tenure.

According to a TDOC employee who did not want to be identified due to fear of retaliation, “In order to make it appear that assaults on staff and inmates are not increasing, Commissioner Schofield ... has ordered wardens to reduce the number of incidents reported on TOMIS by changing the code of how an incident is documented. For example, a report filed on TOMIS documenting an assault on staff will still report an assault on a staff member within the body of the report; however, the incident will not be coded as an assault on staff thereby cleansing the data so that assaults appear to be down or steady rather than increasing as they actually are.”

Meanwhile, violent incidents continue to occur in Tennessee state prisons. According to a January 16, 2013 memo from Warden Michael Donahue at the CCA-operated Hardeman County Correctional Facility (HCCF), “Over the past few days we have had some incidents at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable. Last week, one of my staff was assaulted in the chow hall for no reason.... In addition on Tuesday, January 15, 2013, we had two separate incidents of gang fight activities in the hallway and chow hall.”

As a result the facility was placed on lockdown. The lockdown was lifted a week later, but the prison was again put on lockdown status on January 28, 2013 due to “ongoing conflicts with gang activity and violence against staff at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable,” according to a memo from HCCF Acting Warden Terrence Dickerson.

Sources: HCCF memos (Jan. 16, 2013 and Jan. 28, 2013), TDOC records produced pursuant to PLN’s public records request, letters from TDOC prisoners and staff

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