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Settlement Ends Forced Religious Classes in Tennessee Prison Industry Program

An employee for TRICOR, Tennessee’s prison industry program, received $80,994 to settle a lawsuit alleging he was forced to teach religious-based classes as part of his duties. The suit alleged First Amendment violations.

Prior to taking a job as the Operations Manager at TRICOR’s wood plant at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCX) in June 2015, Joseph D. Baker had been employed as a guard for 18 years, reaching the rank of captain. As part of a Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, the wood plant pays prisoners at least $7.25 per hour in gross wages to hand-scrape unfinished wood that is subsequently shipped to Shaw Industries to produce wood flooring.

After accepting his position with TRICOR, Baker’s supervisor “directed and instructed him” to “coach” prisoners with preprinted, structured materials based on the book This Ain’t No Practice Life, by Michael Burt. TRICOR ordered staff to use the book to “program” prisoners.

“Burt and his book promote and advance Christian values and Christian ideas,” Baker alleged in his complaint. From 2010 to 2015, TRICOR paid about $320,000 for materials related to This Ain’t No Practice Life and for Burt to personally instruct certain classes.

Despite Baker informing TRICOR officials that he had “sincerely felt religious objections” to Burt’s materials, he was forced to take a coaching class and then instructed to teach the book’s content to prisoners. He also feared reprisals or a lawsuit from prisoners who were required to attend the classes to maintain their TRICOR jobs.

Represented by Nashville attorney Perry A. Craft, Baker filed a civil rights complaint that resulted in an August 2017 settlement agreement that included $45,948.15 in damages plus $35,000 in attorney fees.

In the wake of the settlement, TRICOR suspended the curriculum program based on Burt’s book. See: Baker v. Tennessee, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00147. 


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Related legal case

Baker v. Tennessee