Tennessee finds itself locked into a bad deal

Strange bedfellows collaborate to oppose for-profit prisons

Friday, February 2, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 5
By Sam Stockard

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons makes no secret about his disdain for private prisons in Tennessee.

Not only is he concerned about a Comptroller’s Office audit showing CoreCivic’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center skating by with fewer staff than required, especially for critical posts, he says the Department of Correction is violating the spirit of state law by contracting with four counties to run more than the one minimum-security or medium-security prison allowed in Tennessee.

“I think there needs to be accountability standards in place to ensure that they’re operating the way they should be operating if those contracts continue, Clemmons explains. “We should hold them to … a higher standard almost if they’re going to profit off the corrections system.”

With a goal of trying to keep what he calls “inherently problematic” private prisons in check, the Nashville Democrat is planning to sponsor legislation requiring them to meet stricter guidelines than state law requires.

In addition to this technical evasion, private prisons have problems with monitors, allegations of wrongdoing coming from within prisons, insufficient mental health treatment, lacking educational and vocational programs and poor parole and recidivism rates, Clemmons adds.

For instance, Clemmons says, Trousdale’s masonry classroom can take up to 24 inmates, but it has 2,500 inmates, creating a long waiting list that makes it difficult for inmates to take the courses they need to be paroled.

As a result, some inmates might have to stay in prison longer, and CoreCivic gets paid for every day the inmate serves time there.

“So, part of my accountability act is mandating them to have sufficient vocational/educational programs, educational programs to accommodate every qualified inmate at their own expense,” Clemmons says.

Yet another bill he’s planning is designed to keep the state from going around a law limiting the state to one privately run prison. It would prohibit the transfer of state inmates to any correctional facility other than the one minimum- or medium-security prison allowed by state law.

The Department of Correction sends the county an invoice, cuts it a check, then the county writes a check for the same amount to the prison operator, Clemmons points out.

“It’s blatantly circumventing the spirit of the state law. And that’s the way all of them operate,” Clemmons continues.

Bipartisan frustration

During a hearing on the Department of Correction’s shortcomings at Trousdale and other CoreCivic prisons, Republican state Rep. Jeremy Faison told correction officials they were going to have to sit there and “take it like a jackass in a hailstorm” as legislators pilloried them with questions and criticism.

“Throughout this entire state, Republicans and Democrats alike agree that there’s a problem with for-profit prisons,” says Faison, of Cosby in the Smoky Mountains.

Faison, though, says bringing legislation to stop for-profit prisons immediately would face a major fight because of its fiscal impact and the number of jobs it could affect.

Serious reform can’t be made “overnight,” he says.

“But one of the biggest problems I saw with for-profit prisons is we only give healthy patients to the for-profit prisons, No. 1, and then No. 2 we guarantee them if they build a prison or take over a prison we’ll give them 90 percent occupancy,” Faison adds.

“There’s very few people in life who get to sign a contract with government and are guaranteed 90 percent of their business.”

Legislation he is sponsoring this session would remove that 90 percent occupancy guarantee from future contracts with CoreCivic or other private prison companies.

Faison also wants CoreCivic to put as much personnel into the four prisons it operates as the state does.

“There should be some type of parallel that you should be at the same standard that the government is,” Faison says.

The audit and response

The performance audit found Trousdale Turner Correctional Center and Whiteville Correction Facility operated with fewer correctional staff than approved, failed to follow staffing patterns and left critical posts unstaffed, possibly limiting their ability to effectively manage inmates.

Core Civic reports for Trousdale Turner and Hardeman County Correctional Center also contained numerous errors, making information about hires, terminations and vacancies unreliable.

Trousdale Turner’s failure to meet contract requirements and state policies after two years “challenges” the Department of Correction’s ability to monitor the private prison, the audit states.

Lawmakers hammered Department of Correction and CoreCivic leaders during meetings after the audit came out, questioning whether they were doing enough to stop gang activity at Trousdale Turner or keep inmates from returning to prison after release.

“If we’re not rehabilitating these men and women, then we are setting ourselves up, not only for more costs, but a continued cycle of recidivism, single-parent households,” says state Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) of the state’s privately run prisons. “It’s a drain on everything, education, health care, the economy, you name it. And nobody wants to talk about it.”

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker says the department responded by adding monitors at all CoreCivic prisons and an executive level of oversight “to ensure compliance” with the state contract. On-site monitors increased to eight from four, and the department appointed a director of contract monitoring for the private prisons who would work with administrators and monitors and report to an executive leadership team.

In addition, the department is revising a report to reflect how offenders are complying based on their supervision level. Managers and officers also are to make a weekly review of prisoner case files.

Parker contends the department was trying to work with CoreCivic while it was having a hard time filling positions.

“And we may not have taken action when we should have in some cases,” he explains.

“But, again, going forward it’s clear that they have a contractual obligation to follow, and the department is committed to ensure that they meet those obligations. If they fail to meet those obligations, we’ll follow the rule in the contract to seek liquidated damages,” he says.

Trousdale Turner’s base budget is $58.7 million compared to expenses last year of $52.4 million, with its pay based on the number of inmate days an offender stays at Trousdale, according to a Department of Correction spokeswoman.

The prison had an operating capacity of 2,501 beds in November assigned to 2,481 inmates, putting it at 99.2 percent of capacity and 92.9 percent of the facilities total active beds, according to state figures.

At a late 2017 hearing, a CoreCivic official couldn’t answer legislators when asked about the facility’s recidivism rate.

The Department of Correction doesn’t put individual facility breakdowns for parole and returning violators on its website.

But in 2016-17, parole was granted for 3,197 prisoners out of 13,777 hearings, much lower than in 2009-10 when 5,214 prisoners were granted parole.

TDOC reported 10,321 admissions in 2016-17, 4,222 of whom were returned violators, a recidivism rate of 40.9 percent.

“We take the findings of the comptroller very seriously,” CoreCivic’s Jerry Lankford told a Senate committee recently.

Lankford explained the company is working with the Department of Correction to increase staffing and raised starting pay to $16.50 an hour from $11.75, in addition to putting in more incentive for staff to stay with the company longer.

In response to staffing questions from Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Lankford said CoreCivic brought in more employees from other facilities to shore up unmonitored posts and doubled the number of contract monitors at its facilities.

“I can promise you we will continue working hard,” Lankford said.

Yarbro, however, wasn’t satisfied with the response.

The Nashville Democrat says he is concerned about the structure of CoreCivic contracts and the fact they’re paid a flat rate regardless of staffing, medical care and classes or programs.

“The second concern is on the monitoring side, and it’s alarming to me that we had to have an audit by the comptroller to learn about the extent of the problem,” Yarbro points out. “And I think we have to ensure that the Department of Correction doesn’t have its head buried in the sand on this.”

Yarbro says the Legislature made the wrong move by eliminating its Corrections Oversight Committee and wants renewed focus on making sure prisons are operating correctly.

He contends the details of private contracts and prison performance are too important for the state to allow with no “notion of what’s happening.”

“There are things the private sector does well, and if you’re going to have a contract here, you’re got to make sure the incentives are aligned not to simply minimize cost and maximize revenue,” Yarbro adds. “Otherwise, you have a vendor who would benefit from a thinly-staffed institution and would benefit from an institution that has high recidivism rates. That shouldn’t be the profit in centive.”

Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, agrees.

“I think it’s vitally important that when we outsource important state services like prisons that we retain oversight and some protection and some ability to change these contracts that are not being complied with, which we feel very strongly that the current contract, especially in Trousdale County, has been breached and there’s no easy way out,” Stamps says.

The association is backing legislation to give the state more authority to oversee contracts and void them if necessary, he adds.

A Department of Correction spokesman says it isn’t considering restructuring any contracts with CoreCivic. The department and CoreCivic also declined to comment on legislation not yet filed.

Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, Tennessee’s newest prison, has had to halt new admissions after just four months of full operation. A memorandum from a state prison official about the privately run facility says guards there do not have control of the housing units, aren’t counting inmates correctly and are sending them to solitary confinement for no documented reason.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

“While it would be improper to comment on hypotheticals, CoreCivic has a strong track record of working at the direction of our government partners, and we have always welcomed the oversight and accountability they provide as crucial elements to successful public-private partnerships,” says Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman.

She contends Trousdale Turner has worked hard over the last two years to ensure the facility is successful in preparing inmates to return to communities.

In addition to masonry and computer programming, it offers adult basic education, pro-social life skills, therapeutic community, a residential drug alcohol program, group therapy and career management for success.

Gilchrist further defends CoreCivic, saying the Department of Correction decides which inmates are transferred in and out of the correctional facility.

New direction

The Coalition for Sensible Justice, a group made up of the Beacon Center, American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Goodwill Industries and the Tennessee County Services Association, is pushing for prison reform this year on three levels:

n Providing funding incentives for probation departments based on job placement, successful substance abuse treatment and a cut in recidivism

n Requiring a direction connection between a criminal record and a person’s request for an occupational license, removing the ability of state licensing boards to deny, revoke or suspend licenses that aren’t related to a person’s criminal history

n Reforming the juvenile justice system to ensure young people are treated similarly statewide, with a focus on community programs enabling offenders to become “productive members of society as adults”

A Beacon Center report shows 62,000 people on probation and 29,000 in state prisons, with another 22,000 in local jails and 13,000 people on parole.

It points out 10 cents of every state tax dollars goes toward law, safety and correction, the third largest part, behind education and health/social services. With 46 percent of prison or jail inmates returning to incarceration within three years in 2010, Tennesseans increasingly believe “the system is broken,” the report states.

Hearing stories

A legislative committee voted to allow the Department of Correction to continue operations for another year but not before listening to horror stories from former Trousdale Turner employees and inmates.

Former correctional officer Ashley Dixon told lawmakers she witnessed two deaths that resulted from medical shortcoming, adding CoreCivic is not being held accountable.

She worked there for a little more than half a year.

“Those seven months were the hardest of my life,” she said.

Dixon described an atmosphere in which the “pervasive culture” was to protect the company. Staff ignored sick calls, failed to give out inhalers and refused to administer medicine, she added.

Former inmate Paula Smith, a transgender prisoner, told the committee she was placed in an “extremely dangerous” male prison population where she witnessed inmate assaults and was assaulted herself.

“I was consistently called a he/she by officers and strip-searched by male officers,” Smith said.

Darlene Caruthers, a relative of prisoners serving time at Trousdale Turner, said more training is needed for staff to keep them from “overstepping their bounds.”

“They are still human beings and should be treated as such,” Caruthers said of the inmates.

Rep. Clemmons agrees, saying people serving prison time probably deserve to be there.

“But we can’t write them off because they’re getting out at some point,” he explains. “And if we’re not rehabilitating these men and women, then we are setting ourselves up, not only for more costs, but a continued cycle of recidivism, single-parent households.

“It’s a drain on everything, education, health care, the economy, you name it. And nobody wants to talk about it.”

But Clemmons and Faison are ready to push debate throughout the 2018 legislation session.

Says Faison, “I just see problems all through this. My biggest problem is constitutionally we’re saddled with carrying out justice, not a business.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.