The Look in Brief

Accidental and overdose deaths jump during prison staffing shortage

By: - October 28, 2021 5:05 am
Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)

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

One issue keeps Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker up at night: the prison staffing crisis. Correctional officers currently have a vacancy rate of 44 percent in Tennessee. The department finished the 20-21 fiscal year with a hiring decline of 38 percent. The officers that Parker does have are working on weekends and their days off to fill the shifts. 

And TDOC is already feeling the effects of the vacancies. During a Senate State and Local Government Corrections Subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, Parker pointed out that 20-21 saw a spike in accidental and overdose deaths—maybe due to fewer correctional officers there to intervene. TDOC reported 32 accident and overdose inmate deaths this year compared to 12, 11, and 1 in the respective previous years. 

Commissioner Tony Parker, Tennessee Department of Corrections (Photo:
6-21-16 Parker_Tony_Department of Corrections_Offical Portrait

Parker says TDOC is also seeing more types of drugs in the prisons. “It’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “It’s a daily battle to fight these drugs in our facilities.” 

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) pressed the TDOC representatives about how the drugs are getting in when visitations paused during COVID-19. Parker said that visitors are only one of the three main explanations for how drugs slip into a prison, in addition to being thrown over the fences and employees breaking the law. “There’s no question that we on occasion have hired people that we shouldn’t have to fill vacancies,” Parker said. 

The department announced Wednesday that it would be opening up part-time employment to include candidates who have no prior experience. Previously, TDOC would only consider former correctional officers with a minimum of one year of full-time service. The hiring push has also included employee and volunteer recruitment events and sign-on, referral, and retention bonuses. 

Another strategy has been to decrease capacity. Parker took approximately 1,600 beds out of commission temporarily as a way to reduce risk. But in the Prison Policy Initiative’s “State of Emergency” coronavirus report, Tennessee received an F report card, largely for failing to reduce prison population by more than 10 percent. 

“We weighted that section most heavily for failing to expand compassionate release and accelerated release,” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for PPI. “We wrote this report to call attention to the fact that despite elected leaders saying they’re doing all they can, states have left really simple policy options on the table.” 

Perhaps the biggest absence will be Parker himself, who is retiring this fall. The staffing issue will fall onto someone else’s shoulders. Before thanking Parker for his service, Chairman Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) said of TDOC employees, “They’re having to miss their children’s ball games, their vacations. They’re just tired. We’re listening and trying to do something about it.”

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Kendyl Kearly
Kendyl Kearly

Kendyl Kearly is a writer and editor who grew up in Oak Ridge. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has worked with New York Magazine, Esquire, Manhattan magazine, Capitol File, Bustle and Cityview magazine, among others. Her work has received honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards.