NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The nation's largest private prison provider has been operating some prisons in Tennessee without enough corrections officers, and much of the staffing information needed to monitor what's happening behind bars is riddled with errors or hasn't been shared with the state, according to an audit released Tuesday.
The state comptroller's audit shows that problems have persisted at Tennessee's largest prison, the nearly two-year-old Trousdale Turner Correctional Center run by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
In a sample of three days a month between October 2016 and June 2017, auditors found Trousdale and Whiteville Correctional Facility were consistently staffed by fewer than the number of correctional officers the company agreed to provide.
Meanwhile, the Department of Correction has reduced the monitoring of contract compliance at Trousdale, which could increase the risk of violence behind bars, the audit states.
The audit says 44 critical job posts at the approximately 2,500-inmate Trousdale facility were unstaffed on three different days in three months. Still more unfilled critical posts might have been found, the audit states, if Trousdale had turned over more than only about half of the signed staffing rosters requested by the state.
Additionally, staffing reports provided by Trousdale and Hardeman County Correctional Center contained errors so serious that their information on hires, terminations and vacancies may not be reliable, the audit states.
"Trousdale Turner Correctional Center management's continued noncompliance with contract requirements and department policies challenges the department's ability to effectively monitor the private prison," the audit states.
When auditors were onsite at the medium-security prison, Trousdale was facing staffing challenges as it transferred about 40 inmates per day in and out of the facility to reduce the percentage of its gang-affiliated inmates.
The audit also says instability in leadership could be a problem at the prison, which is on its third warden in two years.
The report drew a sharp rebuke from state Democratic lawmakers and the Tennessee State Employees Association, which represents state workers employed in Tennessee's state-run, but not privately run, prisons. The organization cited the audit Tuesday as a reason why the state should end its contract with CoreCivic.
State House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said he will vote this week against reauthorizing the state Department of Correction, pushing instead for a broad inquiry into the private prisons' woes and the state's oversight. The vote would be symbolic, since Republicans hold legislative supermajorities in Tennessee.
"Clearly, the Department of Correction has not been doing its job supervising this contractor, and we have to have a separate, independent agency come in and find these problems," Stewart said.
In spring 2016, just a few months after Trousdale opened, the facility temporarily halted admissions to the prison, leaving it about two-thirds full. Guards were not counting inmates correctly, weren't in control of the housing units and were putting inmates in solitary confinement for no documented reason, according to state records.
In May of this year, the Department of Correction fined CoreCivic $43,750 for breach of contract over problems counting inmates at Trousdale, but the penalty letter did not cite the staffing issues.
CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said the company acknowledges there were problems bringing Trousdale "up to full speed" after its opening, but cited improvements in pay, including a starting salary of more than $16 per hour and signing bonuses and relocation bonuses as improvements. The hourly rate for Trousdale correctional officers was $11.75 in 2015, the comptroller's audit states.
Gilchrist also said the company is encouraged by initial feedback from a separate follow-up audit done recently by the Department of Correction. "We've worked hard to address the challenges we've faced, and while we still have work to do, we are making progress," she said.
The Department of Correction largely concurred with the audit's findings and recommendations, but contends that staffing requirements should be based on the number of workers per inmate population, not per shift at a prison.