Perfect Storm of Overcrowding, Violence and Staff Shortages in Tennessee Prisons
by David Reutter
An increasing prison population within the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), combined with staff shortages, created a perfect storm that spawned high levels of violence in the state’s prison system.
The TDOC has maintained that its prisons are safe. But state legislative hearings uncovered a scheme to conceal high levels of violence by misclassifying violent incidents. Also, some TDOC guard cadets were found to be affiliated with gangs, while maximum-security prisoners were reclassified for placement in general population and a new work schedule led many employees to retire or quit, exacerbating staffing problems.
Yet then-TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield retained the full support of Governor Bill Haslam until Schofield left office at the end of June 2016 for a lucrative position with one of the nation’s largest private prison companies.
By July 2015 the TDOC had 20,242 prisoners, putting the system at 98.5 percent of operating capacity. Under state law that should have resulted in the TDOC asking Haslam to declare an overcrowding emergency. But no request was made, even as at least three prisons – the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP), Morgan County Correctional Complex (MCCX) and South Central Correctional Facility – were at or above their capacity during 2015.
Meanwhile, shortly after Commissioner Schofield was appointed, he implemented new policies that were widely perceived as being harsh and punitive. Those policies included requiring prisoners to walk in single-file lines, without talking and with their hands out of their pockets, even in extremely cold weather. Cell inspections were held each day, and personal property had to be placed in precise locations. Additionally, a policy called “tier management” was instituted that allowed only half the prisoners in a unit out of their cells at one time.
Adding to those policy changes and an increase in the state’s prison population, TDOC officials implemented a new staffing schedule in mid-2015 that required guards to work 171.1 hours during each 28-day period (as opposed to the standard 40 hours per week) before being eligible for overtime pay. The policy was expected to save the state $1.4 million annually in reduced staffing costs.
But repercussions of the new work schedule were felt immediately. Before the change, an average 70 guards reported for duty each day at MCCX, but by June 2015 only 56 were showing up for work. Systemwide, the number of TDOC staff vacancies quadrupled.
The combination of fewer guards and more prisoners created a powder keg.
“Gang violence is rampant,” one prisoner told the Tennessean newspaper. “Gangs are allowed carte blanche to conduct acts of terror and brutality upon the weak and the old. Guards turn a blind eye to gang activities conducted in plain view without any sort of reprisals.”
A stabbing incident at the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCC) occurred amid a severe staff shortage when tensions between two rival gangs reached a boiling point, TDOC officials said. They acknowledged that a third of the prison population was composed of gang members.
However, while the TDOC claimed “[t]he safety and security of our facilities is a top priority,” it refused to declare an overcrowding emergency or retract the 28-day work schedule that had resulted in an increase in staff vacancies, even in the face of rising levels of violence.
An entry-level Tennessee prison guard earned $28,440 in base salary as of July 2015, which was in the middle of the 15 states in the Southern Legislative Conference, according to the Tennessee State Employees Association.
State Rep. Bud Hulsey said at the time that TDOC guards were “hugely underpaid.” And although wages remained a major issue, prison guards told the Tennessean that they were very concerned about their personal safety while trying to carry out their duties, citing several violent incidents.
On July 4, 2015, a guard at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) ordered a prisoner, Arturio Morris, to return to his cell. Morris, a 21-year-old gang member, grabbed a milk crate and began hitting the guard in the face with it. When the guard dropped his radio, Morris picked it up and used it as a weapon to continue the beating.
The next day at DeBerry Special Needs Facility (DSNF) in Nashville, a prisoner threw a container of urine in a guard’s face. Documents obtained by the Tennessean revealed multiple attacks on guards at MCCX.
While both prisoners and guards said violence within TDOC facilities was on the rise, prison officials claimed violent incidents were decreasing. However, as reported in PLN, the TDOC was “covering up and misclassifying violent incidents in an apparent attempt to conceal rising levels of institutional violence in state prisons.” [See: PLN, March 2013, p.34]. Prison officials orchestrated the cover-up by reporting violent incidents as non-violent ones.
According to the Tennessean, from 2008 to 2015, assaults in TDOC facilities dropped from 604 per year to 350. Over that same period of time, the number of disciplinary charges for “staff/inmate provocation,” which is classified as a non-violent offense, jumped from 390 to 937. Additionally, the number of disciplinary charges for “interference with officer’s duties,” another non-violent offense, increased from 952 in 2010 to 2,238 in 2013. It was apparent that violent incidents were being reported as non-violent offenses in disciplinary reports.
PLN and the Associated Press filed a joint public records request with the TDOC in 2014 for documentation regarding disciplinary offenses. The records indicated that prisoners were charged with “interference with officer’s duties” for incidents that included slapping another prisoner across the face, swinging a shank at a guard during a cell extraction, spitting on a guard, throwing feces and urine on a staff member, shoving a guard, grabbing and twisting a guard’s arm, and throwing a food tray, milk carton, broom and pieces of fruit at guards.
“As incidents began to rise, we as wardens were told repeatedly to review all assaulting and violent incidents and reduce those that we could to a lesser, nonviolent offense,” said former WTSP warden Jerry Lester. “In Commissioner Schofield’s efforts to report that violence was decreasing inside the facilities, often incidents that were clearly assaultive were declassified.”
For example, PLN reported an October 9, 2012 altercation involving nine WTSP prisoners during a morning cell inspection. Although the prisoners brawled with multiple staff members – including Warden Lester – which resulted in their being pepper-sprayed, they were charged with non-violent disciplinary offenses. Lester suffered a broken arm and torn rotator cuff but his injuries were not mentioned in prison incident reports.
“I was a company man,” said Lester, who left the TDOC in 2014. “I kept my mouth shut.”
Additionally, a December 2015 report by WSMV-TV detailed allegations that some TDOC guards in the department’s cadet corps – which serves as a training and recruitment pool for prison staff – had been infiltrated by gang members. That presented a significant security risk, as they could smuggle contraband into prisons or engage in other misconduct on behalf of incarcerated gang members.
“A perfect storm has come upon the Department of Correction,” said state Senator Ken Yager.
Commissioner Schofield was called before Tennessee’s legislature and questioned about the serious problems within the TDOC. He downplayed concerns about increasing levels of violence, contending the department’s data actually showed a decrease in violent incidents – but did not mention how they were being misclassified and covered up. Some legislators did not accept Schofield’s explanations.
“I’m a little troubled that there’s such disconnect between what we’re hearing from the media, from the people who are working in these facilities and what we’re hearing from the department,” said state Senator Jeff Yarbro. “I think that disconnect should trouble everybody in the state, and I think our job is to look at it until we get the bottom of it.”
TDOC Assistant Commissioner Tony Parker claimed the agency had never changed its policy for reporting violent incidents. But in a February 6, 2014 memo to wardens, Parker had stated, “some of these prisons have way too many incidents that are not correct and have not been reviewed.” He encouraged the wardens “to take this responsibility very serious[ly], and if you have not already done so, develop and enforce an institutional policy related to incident reviews.”
Parker explained to lawmakers that economics played into his directive that wardens review incident reports.
“When you wrongfully charge an inmate with an assault that’s not an assault, it’s going to affect his classification, it’s going to affect the time he serves in prison,” he said. “When you look at that, beside the point it’s not right to do that, it’s also a pretty expensive ticket to write. Probably about $24,000, $25,000 for the state that’s going to be paid annually to keep that inmate incarcerated.”
But when a prisoner was brought to a WTSP guard on August 25, 2015 with “puncture wounds” serious enough to require a helicopter evacuation to a hospital, an internal TDOC report classified the incident as an “illness, offender, serious, hospital” without indicating that violence had been involved.
“From dangerous working conditions to problems with staffing and dubious inconsistencies in reporting, the Tennessee Department of Correction is clearly in a state of crisis,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Transparency is crucial to ensuring government accountability, especially at times like these and particularly when a government agency’s actions have such a bearing on public safety.”
Lester, the former WTSP warden, agreed the state’s prison system was in crisis.
“These conditions, as well as the 28-day work cycle, have placed undue strain on TDOC staff and are resulting in the exodus of staff from the department,” he told lawmakers.
Continued media attention and concerns by lawmakers eventually forced Commissioner Schofield to seek an outside review from the American Correctional Association (ACA), an accrediting organization that charges fees to inspect and accredit correctional facilities. Those inspections, however, are primarily designed to ensure certain policies are in place; they are not comprehensive audits, nor do they provide oversight. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.1]. With respect to the TDOC, the ACA admitted it was going in with its gloves on, not off.
“Our job is not to tear them apart; it’s to help them,” stated ACA executive director James Gondles.
“There’s no reason the public should believe an ACA inspection is anything more than a rubber stamp for business as usual,” said state Rep. Mike Stewart, who noted that the TDOC had previously given $40,000 to the ACA’s Correctional Accreditation Managers Association. Further, Commissioner Schofield served on an ACA standards committee.
“We need a true independent investigation. Not just some organization coming as part of its routine procedures, and maybe adding a few little things to give the appearance of an independent audit,” Stewart declared.
Gondles asserted the relationship between the TDOC and ACA would not affect the “technical assistance visit,” which cost Tennessee taxpayers $7,200.
“We’re not there to pat [Schofield] on the back and say, ‘good job fella.’ Just because he’s a member of ACA or active in our association has little or no bearing on whether or not we’re going to give him any kind of report,” Gondles said.
The “technical assistance visit” concluded on September 16, 2015 after three ACA officials visited five of Tennessee’s 13 prisons, including WTSP, DSNF and RMSI. Gondles stated he and his team spoke with “scores and scores” of staff and prisoners.
The Tennessean obtained information indicating that during the ACA’s visit to DSNF, staffing at that facility had been beefed up. The prison put 14 guards on double shifts and 20 on-the-job trainees worked an irregular shift when the inspection took place.
In an October 2015 news conference, former warden Jerry Lester claimed the rise in violence at state prisons was partly attributable to the TDOC’s practice of reclassifying maximum-security prisoners and moving them into the general prison population.
“The driving force is money,” he said. “We as wardens were directed to integrate them [maximum security prisoners] into medium [security] populations ... where they continued their predatory behavior among inmates who simply wanted to do their time and go home.”
The reclassification of maximum-security prisoners “was not a cost saving measure,” the TDOC said in a statement. “This was an effective, strategic part of the department’s management of the offender population.”
Between June 2011 and June 2015, the number of maximum-security prisoners dropped from 1,019 to 469.
After its review of TDOC facilities, the ACA recommended eliminating the 28-day work schedule for guards, instead using a 14-day schedule with 12-hour shifts, and changing the way state prison officials report violent incidents.
“Ultimately, these changes are anticipated to positively affect outcomes relative to facility stability and safety as well as addressing staffing concerns relative to pay, overtime and scheduling issues,” the ACA stated in its six-page report.
“I think their recommendations [are] subject to interpretation,” Commissioner Schofield stated. “Good recommendations, but we have to look and see what’s best for Tennessee in terms of how we implement those.” He later declined to change the 28-day work schedule.
A bill to require the TDOC to adopt a 14-day work cycle and eliminate double shifts for guards failed in the legislature. Another bill was introduced to reinstate the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections, which had been eliminated in 2011. PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann testified in favor of that legislation, which also failed to pass.
With respect to violent incident reporting, Commissioner Schofield announced in January 2016 that new reporting categories would be used by the TDOC, including “assault on staff with weapon,” “assault on staff without weapon,” “assault on offender with weapon” and “assault on offender without weapon.”
Meanwhile, problems continued in the state’s prison system as two WTSP guards were fired and charged with felonies in September 2016, after reportedly having sexual contact with prisoners.
Laura Hudson worked in a unit housing male prisoners, while Frederick Pegues was employed at the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center at WTSP. Both were fired and charged with sexual contact with inmates, a class E felony.
Commissioner Schofield announced in the spring of 2016 that he was leaving to become an executive vice-president with GEO Group, a private prison company based in Florida. When questioned about his tenure at the TDOC, he told NBC News, “there is nothing I would have done differently.” He was replaced by Assistant Commissioner Tony Parker.
“We’ve been calling for changes in the department for some time,” said Rep. Stewart. “Hopefully this presents an opportunity for a new leadership team to come in and look at all the concerns that we have been raising and address them in a substantive and significant way.”
Governor Haslam said he had “begged” Schofield to stay, and denied the Commissioner’s decision to leave was in response to mounting criticism over problems within the TDOC. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the work he’s done and I’m going to miss him,” the governor added.
The same could not be said for Tennessee prisoners and, indeed, many TDOC employees, who were relieved to see Schofield depart. The punitive policies he had implemented, however, including controlled movement, cell inspections and tier management, remained and continued to be a source of discontent among the prison population. And that population has continued to grow; as of the end of March 2017, TDOC facilities housed 21,906 prisoners.
Understaffing continues to be a problem in state prisons. The TDOC had a 40.5 percent staff turnover rate in 2015, compared with 25.6 percent in 2011. The turnover rate declined slightly in 2016 but is still high and hundreds of positions remain unfilled. A November 28, 2016 article in the Tennessean indicated there were 825 staff vacancies in the state’s prison system, including 519 at ten public prisons (representing 11 percent of job positions), and 306 at four CCA-run facilities (representing 18.6 percent).
Nor was there an end to violent incidents. On April 9, 2017, three guards at the Turney Center Industrial Complex were assaulted and one was taken hostage. The incident reportedly involved 16 gang members and was one of the most violent against staff in Tennessee’s prison system in years. Guards Jesse Shockley, Paul Nielsen and Lester Ball were stabbed multiple times; Shockley was held hostage for several hours. All three were airlifted to a hospital.
While TDOC officials claimed the attack was “unprovoked,” reliable sources at Turney Center informed PLN that ongoing discontent due to institutional policies, as well as disrespectful actions by one of the guards, had contributed to the assault.
Additionally, at the time of the Turney Center incident there were 43 vacant guard positions at the prison. Racial disparities between staff and prisoners may have also been a contributing factor. According to data obtained by PLN through a public records request, of 393 Turney Center employees, just 16 – or 4 percent – were non-white. The TDOC’s 2016 annual report indicated the prisoner population at the facility was 54 percent non-white.
The attack occurred in Unit 3 at Turney Center, which was reportedly being used as an unofficial punishment unit, where prisoners were placed after being released from solitary. Thus, the unit contained a large number of gang members, who were more likely to be involved in disciplinary offenses.
“The problem with that approach is that housing gang members together concentrates their numbers and thus their power base; non-gang prisoners in the unit are at greater risk of being victimized, and concentrating gang members in one area makes it more difficult for staff to control them,” PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann told the Tennessean.
“You cannot continue to crush people and dehumanize people and not expect consequences at some point,” noted Jeannie Alexander, a former prison chaplain at RMSI and director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Nashville-based non-profit.
It is apparent that despite the departure of Commissioner Schofield, problems remain within Tennessee’s prison system that require greater oversight – including legislative oversight – as well as a review of the TDOC’s policies and practices. As stated by one Tennessee prisoner who contacted PLN and asked to remain anonymous, “it’s like all the circuses in the nation are missing their clowns, because they’re all working here.”
Sources: The Tennessean, www.nashvillescene.com, WSMV-TV, www.nbcnews,CNN, www.knoxblogs.com