Lawmaker raises specter of federal takeover of Tennessee prison system

By: - September 27, 2022 6:03 am
Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)

Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, which is managed by CoreCivic. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)

Lawmakers blasted the Department of Correction Monday for making a weak response to a 2020 audit, with one legislator questioning whether the federal courts need to take over Tennessee’s prison system again.

Prison system officials contended they had solved nearly every problem raised by the Comptroller’s Office two years ago, but they presented few details in a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Subcommittee.

Under questioning from outgoing Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart, they finally admitted that CoreCivic, the state’s private prison operator, paid more than $10.6 million in liquidated damages over the last two years compared to $7.3 million from 2018 to 2020 for failing to meet staffing requirements. 

The state pays CoreCivic about $180 million a year to run four prisons, and the money is simply deducted from the amount the state pays. Yet the private operator has been dogged by statistics showing its murder rate for prisoners is higher than that in state-run prisons. 

Correction Department officials also acknowledged their vacancy rate for staff for state-run prisons is 29%, with some as low as 5%, compared to CoreCivic’s, which ranges from 12% to 39%. 

Officials said, however, staffing has increased since the Legislature approved a 37% pay increase for correction officers.

"Is it time for the federal courts just to take over our prison system again and clear house?" asked Rep. Mike Stewart of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“Is it time for the federal courts just to take over our prison system again and clear house?” asked Rep. Mike Stewart of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Stewart, a Nashville attorney who is leaving office this year, requested internal audits for the committee to figure out how much improvement the department has made, since it provided few details Monday. He also noted the department faces two questions, first: whether the Legislature will allow it to continue operating in 2023 as it tries to respond to a “terrible audit.”

“The other question: Is it time for the federal courts just to take over our prison system again and clear house, because if the prisons can’t take care of themselves, then obviously we need some outside institution to do that, which is what we did before?” Stewart said.

Interim Commissioner Lisa Helton declined to respond to a reporter’s questions about the need for a federal court takeover immediately after Monday’s hearing. She issued a statement later saying, “I have confidence in the ability of the Tennessee Department of Correction to carry out our mission with professionalism and within the standards of the American Correctional Association.”

The federal court system took control of Tennessee prisons in 1982 when a U.S. District Court found portions of the system unconstitutional and appointed a special master to run them. Overcrowding sparked violence and riots across the system in 1985, and the Legislature responded with a special session to set up the Comprehensive Corrections Improvement Act, which established the Oversight Committee on Corrections, the Tennessee Sentencing Commission and the Community Corrections program. All three of those have been nixed or changed dramatically in the last three years. 

Juvenile functions were removed from the Department of Correction in 1985, and Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville and the Wayne County Boot Camp started.

Seven years later, the state closed Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville and opened the first private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America — now CoreCivic — in Clifton. A year later, the prison system emerged from federal oversight.  

Yet the 2020 audit found the Department of Correction leadership “failed to provide adequate oversight” of prisons in several areas dealing with inmates, prison staff and communities, affecting the department’s ability to meet its mission of operating “safe and secure prisons” and providing effective community supervision to improve public safety.

Helton tried to smooth things over in Monday’s hearing, saying the system has seen “remarkable enhancements for rehabilitative services.” She also told lawmakers she appreciated their approval of pay increases and help from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“I think it’s a positive story,” she said.

Lisa Helton, interim commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. (Photo:
Lisa Helton, interim commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. (Photo:

In addition to saying it responded to the comptroller’s findings, the department started an interdiction unit to concentrate on keeping drugs, cell phones and weapons out of prisons, according to the presentation.

Committee members were not impressed.

Rep. John Ragan, who chairs the Joint Government Operations Committee, told Helton he received complaints via text message from other lawmakers who were watching the presentation online. The Oak Ridge Republican urged Department of Correction staff to do a thorough analysis of guards to figure out how to hire more officers.

“We need to do something and we need to do something in a very short order,” Ragan said.

State Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, was frustrated by the department’s inability to brief him before the meeting so he would know what type of questions to ask.

“It certainly leaves me uncomfortable with the progress we’re making,” he said. 

The 2020 audit called for improvement in numerous areas, including better reporting of information, correctional facilities staffing, inmate services such as medical and mental health care, parole and probation monitoring and contracted services and procurements.

In addition, the audit determined the department’s annual inspections didn’t provide a “clear measure” of state and CoreCivic prison performance.

Public reporting of inmate deaths and other serious incidents also raised concerns, with the audit finding management did not ensure state and CoreCivic staff collected and reported complete and accurate information, something it determined to be “problematic.”

The Tennessee Lookout recently reported the parents of three inmates who died in prison in 2021 are accusing CoreCivic, the state’s private prison operator, of prioritizing profits instead of inmate safety and failing to monitor prison guards.

The lawsuits stem from the deaths of three men – Chriteris Allen, Laeddie Coleman and Joshua Williams – at three CoreCivic prisons from August to November 2021. They accuse the company of understaffing its four Tennessee prisons to increase shareholder profits by cutting costs, ignoring guards’ drug smuggling, refusing to get outside medicare treatment for inmates and failing to provide a safe atmosphere for inmates.

Allen was found dead from a fentanyl overdose in his Whiteville Correctional Facility cell; Coleman was stabbed to death at Hardeman County Correctional Facility in an unmonitored pod; and Williams died of a fentanyl overdose at South Central Correctional Facility. An autopsy showed he suffered “systemic infections throughout his body, including pneumonia.”

The 2020 audit also found the Department of Correction failed to provide adequate probation and parole services.

Yet Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration is putting more inmates under the authority of state probation officers by rolling back the number overseen by the Community Corrections program. Despite opposition from the Legislature, the Department of Correction took bids that undercut the ability of the 37-year-old Community Corrections program to function.

Community Corrections officials say dialing back the program and its intensive oversight for felons means more people will be sent to prison instead of being given a chance to change their lives and function outside a correctional facility.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.