Audit recommends changes to prison assault reporting

Friday, October 2, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 40

NASHVILLE (AP) — An audit of Tennessee prisons is recommending the Correction Department change the way it classifies assaults.

If adopted, the department will likely see a spike in prison violence, at least on paper.

That's because currently an assault on staff where no one is injured is classified as "staff-inmate provocation," which is considered a nonviolent offense.

Richard Stalder is one of the auditors for the American Correctional Association. Speaking at a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Corrections Subcommittee, Stalder explained the recommended change this way: "If I swing a baseball bat at your head and just barely miss you, it should be sanctioned the same way whether I hit you or not."

The association is recommending the Correction Department add new disciplinary offenses that include "staff assault with weapon" and "staff assault without weapon." The proposed definitions for the offenses makes clear that the inmate does not even have to make contact with staff, much less injure the person, for it to be considered assault.

Critics of the department have claimed that the administration is using the "staff-inmate provocation" category as a way to hide the number of violent assaults in the prisons. Since 2008, the number of reported staff-inmate provocations has risen from 390 to 937. At the same time the number of reported assaults on staff has declined from 604 to 350, according to the department.

Commissioner Derrick Schofield previously acknowledged to the subcommittee that the department has changed the way it classifies some incidents, but he defended the new method as more accurate. Schofield said minor incidents like throwing a spit wad had previously been classified as assaults.

The audit also recommends moving correctional officers from a 28-day work schedule with 8-hour shifts to a 14-day schedule with 12-hour shifts. The details are complicated, but Stalder said the 14-day schedule would give officers a 3-day weekend every other week. The 12-hour shift would eliminate double shifts. And the shortened pay period would allow officers to be paid for overtime sooner.

The department has rolled out the 28-day schedule across the system over the past year as a way to keep down overtime and provide more flexibility in staffing.

In a hearing before a Senate subcommittee in August, some employees blamed the new schedule for staffing shortages that they said have made the prisons more dangerous.

Stalder said at the Wednesday hearing that changing to a 14-day schedule would "minimize some of the turnover based on morale, stress and anxiety."

Several subcommittee members said they were unhappy with how the audit was carried out. Three auditors visited five prisons, spending two or three hours at each one. The visits were announced in advance to prison officials who accompanied the auditors as they walked through the prisons and spoke with staff.

Sen. Ken Yeager showed his frustration after Stalder was unable to answer several of his questions.

"We're kind of relying on you, and you keep referring us back to the department," he said.

Schofield is scheduled to go before the subcommittee next week to discuss whether he will act on the audit's recommendations.

After the subcommittee meeting, he defended the department, saying the overall gist of the report was positive.

"We do run a good system," he said. "There's always room for improvement."