NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday staunchly handled his administration's operation of state prisons, saying "our first priority is always going to be safety. Period."
Responding for the first time since concerns were raised last week over impacts his administration's change in overtime policy has had on correctional officer vacancies and stability, Haslam told reporters violent incidents in prisons are down more than 20 percent.
When a reporter sought to explain that questions have been raised over how assaults are now being classified, the governor quickly stepped in, saying, "No, it's fact.
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"I mean, we're going to keep the facts exactly what they are," he added. "We're down over 20 percent statewide. Are there incidents? You bet. Has there always been? You bet. Are our prisons safer than they were before? Yes."
Haslam's comments come as both the House and Senate State Government Committees plan to hold hearings this month on questions raised by some lawmakers and privately by correctional officers.
It's already prompted some lawmakers to call for reinstatement of the General Assembly's Corrections Oversight Committee, which was abolished three years ago in a cost-cutting move that eliminated most joint House-Senate oversight panels.
But Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey on Monday firmly ruled out resurrection of the committee, which had been suggested by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, among others. McCormick had called his sponsorship of the 2012 bill a "mistake."
"Lt. Gov. Ramsey believes that the General Assembly's standing committees are more than capable of handling the legislative branch's oversight function," Ramsey spokesman Adam Kleinheider said in a statement. "He believed it when the legislature voted to eliminate the duplicative and unnecessary oversight committees and he believes it today."
Haslam did acknowledge there is an "issue around prison guards. But it's not consistent across" the prison system. Like Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield's office, however, the governor said, "we're not obviously going to say where we do or don't because that's a safety situation."
One thing is certain, though, the governor said, referring to the change on overtime policy, "if it was due to one specific thing, then you wouldn't see a spotty pattern [at different prisons]; you'd see it being consistent across the board as well."
The administration reclassified correctional officers as law enforcement officers, allowing them to be moving from getting overtime for work beyond 40 hours in a week to a 28-day cycle where overtime initially was allowable after 171 hours. That was changed last week to 160 hours.
Some lawmakers and guards say that has led to guards quitting and others forced to pull double shifts in some prisons, especially in rural areas. Schofield's office said last week that 322 guards have left since the new policy began phasing in a year ago. But the department has said that because it was phased in at different institutions, system-wide comparisons cannot be made until a year into full implementation.
"We're looking at as the economy comes back we're losing some people to other jobs than being a prison guard," Haslam said.
One question, he added, is guard pay at the right level. "But then again, we've raised the pay more than anyone else has since we've been in office."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.