CoreCivic Prison in Tennessee Plagued with Problems
by David M. Reutter
Less than two years after opening the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center (TTCC) in January 2016, the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) imposed a $43,750 fine against the prison’s private operator, Nashville-based CoreCivic.
Formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, and the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, CoreCivic had already swapped Warden Todd Thomas at Trousdale for Blair Leibach from the company’s Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility. The TDOC levied the fine for not properly conducting prisoner counts – one of the four most serious of 66 non-compliance issues cited in a March 2017 annual audit, along with the improper use of solitary confinement, inadequate staffing and allegations of excessive force.
“Count is one of the most important functions that prison officials perform – it verifies the number of inmates and detects escapes,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, who served time in a CCA-operated prison in the 1990s. “The failure to adequately perform one of the most basic security functions of a correctional facility speaks volumes about [CoreCivic’s] ability to operate TTCC.”
“We’ve got work to do; clearly, we’ve got work to do,” CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger admitted.
In November 2017, a performance audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s office found additional problems at TTCC and questioned the reliability of staffing and staff vacancy data provided by CoreCivic as part of the company’s five-year, $276 million contract to operate the 2,552-bed medium-security facility, located near Hartsville.
“[TTCC] management’s continued noncompliance with contract requirements and [TDOC] policies challenges the department’s ability to effectively monitor the private prison,” the audit report stated.
Previously, in May 2016, the TDOC stopped sending new prisoners to TTCC until deficiencies were corrected. Since the facility had been open for only four months at the time, its population of 1,706 prisoners meant it was at two-thirds capacity. However, by November 30, 2016, TTCC was again accepting new prisoners and its population had reached 2,434.
Russell Washburn replaced Leibach in November 2017, becoming TTCC’s third warden in eighteen months and leading the audit to cite “instability in leadership” as one cause of severe staffing problems at the facility.
“A sample of 3 different days in 3 months revealed 44 critical posts unstaffed,” the audit noted, adding the audit team “might have identified more unstaffed posts, but our review was limited by the blank staffing rosters” – missing or incomplete TTCC staffing reports.
The reports were supposed to be completed by a TDOC contract monitor, but the audit found that a reduction in the number of monitors had overstretched those remaining, affecting the state’s ability “to effectively monitor key contract requirements.”
“This lack of effective monitoring has resulted in situations that may undermine the department’s ability to achieve its stated mission and could result in harm to inmates,” the auditors added.
Understaffing at TTCC compounded the inadequate contract monitor positions – a consistent problem acknowledged by CoreCivic.
“[Staffing problems are] a very frequent occurrence when you’re activating a new facility, especially in a jurisdiction that maybe doesn’t have a similar operation – public or private – and with that you’ve got a workforce that is brand new to corrections, you’re going to have some inconsistencies in the operations,” said Hininger.
While that may be partly to blame, another factor was likely CoreCivic’s low pay scale, which had failed to attract or maintain a qualified workforce at TTCC. In December 2016, the company increased the hourly starting pay for guards to $15.75 and gave raises to all current staff who had been hired at a lower rate.
However, high staff turnover continued to create a dangerous situation that led to a September 2017 attack on a guard by TTCC prisoner Skiver Millsaps, who was high on methamphetamine at the time and had to be subdued by other prisoners because no other guards were nearby. Another prisoner died from a meth overdose at the facility – which his widow called “unbelievable,” saying she wondered how and where the drug was obtained.
“Was it manufactured in there?” she asked in an interview with WSMV-TV news.
The meth-fueled attack that sent the unnamed guard to Vanderbilt University Hospital also landed Millsaps in segregation at TTCC and put the prison on lockdown. Serving 30 years for second-degree murder and aggravated burglary, the alleged prison gang member had used a seven-inch piece of sharpened metal to stab the guard in the neck. CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the officer was in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries.
In a similar incident in May 2017, prisoner Dantwan Crump used a 7.5-inch “shiv” to stab another TTCC guard four times. He claimed the guard had pepper sprayed one of his friends.
Pepper spray is used frequently at TTCC – 102 times during a 10-month period, according to an internal memo. The Tennessee prison with the next-highest number of incidents involving the use of pepper spray – a total of seven incidents – was the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, which holds about one-third the number of prisoners housed at TTCC, including prisoners on death row.
Former TTCC chaplain Jacque Steubbel said shivs and pepper spray were both used frequently at that facility. When a prisoner pointed her to a stash of homemade knives hidden in a ceiling, she relayed that information to CoreCivic guards – but they failed to secure the area to prevent a recurrence of the problem. And in another incident she recalled, a young African-American prisoner who had attempted suicide was pepper-sprayed before guards cut him down from the noose he had made from a bed sheet.
“When you’re dangling like this, that’s the response,” Stuebbel said. “Spray them.”
The gang problem at TTCC was not limited to Millsaps, either. A guard told Steubbel that TTCC officials had identified 1,465 prisoners with gang affiliations – nearly 60 percent of the population.
“I felt like I was in more danger when I was in the prison, and I didn’t even have to think about that,” said James Kelley, who retired from the military after 21 years and served in Desert Storm, about his experience working as a teacher at TTCC. “In a military environment, where I go out there and we’re professionals, I have control over the battlefield aspects. I have control over the command aspects ... in the prison, it’s completely opposite. There’s no control and there’s no identifying immediate threats.”
Those threats of violence – and the staffing problems that contributed to them – led prison officials to place TTCC on lockdown for weeks at the end of 2016, which CoreCivic spokesman Burns described as a series of “standard security sweeps.”
In addition to violence, family members of prisoners said understaffing at TTCC resulted in hours-long waits to be processed into the prison for visitation.
“I waited five hours before I saw my husband last week and I was there at 7:30 in the morning,” said Shinor Smith, who added her husband was not receiving proper medical care.
In an unusual move, CoreCivic initially subcontracted with another company, G4S, to fill guard positions at TTCC; that arrangement reportedly ended in March 2017. The state’s decision to allow TTCC to be privately operated was also unusual since Tennessee law allows only one privatized state prison, which is the South Central Correctional Center.
Thus, the $276 million contract to run TTCC is between the state and Trousdale County, and the county contracts separately with CoreCivic to manage the facility. Two other CoreCivic prisons in Tennessee have the same arrangement – the contracts are with county agencies, which then contract with the company as a way to circumvent state law.
Trousdale County Mayor Carroll Carman said he had received few complaints about TTCC, but critics pointed to the problems identified in the Comptroller’s audit report.
“They put these huge facilities in the middle of nowhere you can’t staff,” observed Jeannie Alexander, a former TDOC prison chaplain and director of the Nashville-based non-profit No Exceptions Prison Collective.