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Beleaguered Tennessee Community Corrections Program Set to Close

by Stephen Newton

After months of financial uncertainty and damaging allegations that began in 2018, the John R. Hay House, one of only 20 Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) community corrections programs in the state, has opted not to renew its contract, which ends on June 30, 2019.

The non-profit, faith-based facility opened in 1984 to provide residential treatment for misdemeanor male offenders. Since then, its United Way-funded programs have expanded to include the Brown Annex for men and the Hosanna House for women. In 1989, just five years after TDOC launched its statewide community corrections program to ease overcrowded jails and prisons as well as to reduce the high rate of recidivism, Hay House was awarded a state contract to provide community corrections services for Sullivan County Criminal Courts in the First Judicial District, East Tennessee. Located in Kingsport, Hay House currently supervises 483 offenders. Statewide, there are more than 5,000 offenders under community corrections supervision.

The Hay House Board of Director’s decision not to renew its TDOC contract was not made easily, and followed months of financial uncertainty and damaging allegations.

Since the fall of 2018, the TDOC’s monthly reimbursements were inexplicably withheld for November, December and January. (Hay House has since received those payments, but February and March 2019 remain outstanding.) The lagging reimbursement cycle, which affected the financial health of all 20 community corrections agencies, was attributed to TDOC’s recent reimbursement documentation requirement changes, which were finally explained in late February 2019 during an hour-long TDOC conference call with all 20 agencies at once.

A few weeks earlier, Hay House – already shaken by financial hardship and a dwindling line of credit at the bank – was the target of an unscheduled visit from TDOC auditors accompanied by armed officers. According to its contract, the TDOC can conduct an audit or inspection at any time without warning, but according to witnesses present, this was the first time it felt like a hostile raid. Staff and employees were Mirandized and interrogated, male and female residents were strip searched and drug tested, and files, computers, data storage flash sticks and hard drives were confiscated. The ordeal lasted well into the evening. Thus far, Hay House has received no explanation for the investigation, which is still ongoing.

The dust had hardly settled when anonymous allegations were made to Kingsport’s United Way that Hay House administration was using UW funds inappropriately and mistreating its staff. On February 19, 2019, the United Way invited Hay House board members to hear the specific allegations, none of which were substantiated with proof. Nevertheless, the underlying message from UW’s leadership seemed clear to most board members: Hay House needs to clean up its act or risk losing funding. Most members came away from the meeting feeling defeated; one person commented, “We’re fighting a losing battle.”

On April 2, 2019, a dispirited board asked Hay House’s attorney to issue a formal notification to the TDOC, the United Way and the presiding Sullivan County drug court judge, stating Hay House would no longer be in the community corrections business after June.

The future economic, social and cultural impact of Hay House’s closing on the Kingsport community and Sullivan County residents has yet to be calculated. Meanwhile, its jails are still overcrowded. To meet the increasing needs, more will need to be built and manned, all at great expense – and the lives of nearly 500 offenders will be lost in the criminal justice system.

Stephen Newton is an independent filmmaker and a Hay House board member. His 2014 documentary film, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” was inspired by Hay House and explores the causes of recidivism and the need for prison reform. For more information about Hay House: www.hayhouseinc.org.

 

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