Tennessee says prison closing not tied to CCA

photo Derrick Schofield, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections

NASHVILLE - Tennessee prison officials say their plan to close a state prison in Nashville isn't tied to a complex deal in which 2,550 state inmates will be housed at a Corrections Corporation of America-owned facility.

Still, Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield acknowledged some of the estimated 660 minimum-security inmates at the state-owned and run Charles B. Bass Correctional Complex could eventually wind up at the new prison in Trousdale County.

"At some point they may transfer to Trousdale," Schofield said, but quickly noted "that's not our intent" behind closing the Bass complex.

The state in July signed a contract with Trousdale County, which in turn has contracted with CCA as it builds a new prison there. The Nashville-based, investor-owned company is constructing a $140 million medium-security prison in the county and will own and operate it.

Closing Bass makes economic sense, Schofield said, citing a $92 cost-per-day for each inmate, compared to about $74 a day for other state-run prisons in Nashville.

Besides, the commissioner pointed out, the state's plan calls for closing Bass by June 30, 2015, provided the Republican-controlled Legislature approves it during lawmakers' annual legislative session starting in January.

And the CCA-run prison in Trousdale is not expected to open until January 2016, the commissioner said. Some legislative staffers, however, note the June 30 timeline could be pretty tight given the budget isn't likely to pass until April.

Schofield's comments came following a public budget presentation before Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in which he outlined plans to close Bass, a 765-bed facility. The department estimates that would save $15.28 million, part of $20.48 million in departmental spending cuts he is recommending.

The Tennessee State Employees Association is nervously eyeing the plan.

"TDOC's budget presentation today that proposes closing a correctional facility and reducing an already short-staffed prison system by 233 positions raises concerns for not only those public employees and their families, but for the safety of the community as a whole," association President Bryan Merritt said in a statement.

Merritt said "if this is simply a justification for privatizing state services, then TSEA is adamantly opposed to it. We cannot contract out our responsibility."

Schofield said the state has some 300 to 400 "annex" beds already available at other prisons able to accommodate minimum security prisoners and has other space as well. Those beds can't be used for medium- or maximum-security felons, he said.

Moreover, Schofield said, the state has three other prisons in Nashville with vacancies and which also have huge turnover rates of 42 percent. The Nashville prisons are Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility.

Another area prison is South Central Correctional Facility, which is operated by CCA under its only direct contract with Tennessee government.

Meanwhile, Correction Department officials are requesting $79.99 million in cost increases, including $11 million for the contract signed with Trousdale County in July to house and manage the CCA-owned 2,552-bed new prison.

CCA purchased the property in 2008 with an eye toward building a prison but then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen showed little interest it.

The Macon County Times reported in May that local county commissioners approved two major deals. One was with the state in which Trousdale would become the "contracted facilitator" for the prison.

The second was between Trousdale and CCA where the company would own and operate the prison and house state inmates.

That's a deal similar to two other CCA-run prisons that were approved under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist's administration in the 1990s. Both contracts are with Hardeman County which in turn contracted with CCA.

The first Hardeman deal was struck after Sundquist's effort to contract out the entire prison system melted down in the then-Democratic controlled Legislature. An earlier effort by then-Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander in the 1980s to do just that fizzled as well.

State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said he doesn't recall a contract with Trousdale involving CCA ever being discussed last session.

He said if minimum security prisoners from Bass do wind up at the CCA facility, "it just doesn't ring very good to me." A former House Finance Committee chairman, Fitzhugh said "the state can keep them a lot cheaper in my opinion than a 'double-leased' prison can. It seems like there's too much going on there. The county has to make some money out of it and CCA does too."

CCA's board of directors includes Chairman John Ferguson, a former state finance commissioner under Sundquist. Another director is Haslam's former finance commissioner, Mark Emkes.

While the publicly traded company has prospered in its native Tennessee, The Associated Press reported earlier this year the FBI launched an investigation into CCA's running of an Idaho prison with a reputation so violent that inmates dubbed it "Gladiator School."

CCA officials, the AP reported, acknowledged the company had understaffed the Idaho Correctional Center by thousands of hours in violation of the state contract. CCA also said employees falsified reports to cover up the vacancies.

The announcement came after an Associated Press investigation showed CCA sometimes listed guards as working 48 hours straight to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550.