Lawmakers push for legislative hearings on Tennessee prison understaffing

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks during the House debate over the state's spending plan at the state Capitol in Nashville on April 16.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks during the House debate over the state's spending plan at the state Capitol in Nashville on April 16.

I think we need to come up with a new pay scale for these correctional officers and I think we also need to put in an incentive pay-raise plan for these officers so we can continue to be on top of the corrections process.

NASHVILLE -- An estimated 322 Tennessee prison guards have quit working for the state since the Department of Correction in 2014 began phasing in a new overtime policy, which some state lawmakers blame for leaving prison conditions unsafe from increased violence.

"Sure it's more dangerous," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who requested the personnel figures from the department. "You don't need to be a prison expert to figure that out."

photo Lawmakers cast votes during a floor debate about the state's annual spending plan in Nashville on Thursday, April 10, 2014. From left are Republican Reps. Paul Bailey of Sparta, Bill Dunn of Knoxville and Harry Brooks of Knoxville.

Last week, eight felons at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville were sent to hospitals with knife wounds, the result of a gang fracas that put the prison on lockdown.

Inmates at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City also were placed on lockdown in the wake of an assault that injured a correctional officer, The Tomahawk newspaper reported.

"There was an incident at Northeast Tennessee, but out of respect for privacy, I cannot share their medical information," department spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said by email. "That incident is still under investigation."

Fitzhugh said many, if not all, of Tennessee's prisons are facing manpower shortages similar to the West Tennessee Penitentiary in his district because of the overtime changes that are intended to save $1.4 million.

According to Fitzhugh, the overtime policy change was a penny-wise, pound-foolish move that has led to turnover and staff shortages. Correctional officers, he said, began moving last summer from a 40-hour-per-week schedule before becoming eligible for overtime to a 28-day, or 160-hour, schedule where no overtime is granted unless those hours are exceeded.

"Attempts to connect separations and the 28-day schedule are flawed. As with any law enforcement field, turnover is a normal occurrence," said TDOC's Taylor.

Gov. Bill Haslam this year provided money that technically granted a 4 percent pay raise for all state employees. But it's unclear how much individual guards, who start at about $27,000 annually, would get under the governor's merit-increase changes. At any rate, Fitzhugh said, it doesn't begin to make up for what they're losing in overtime.

Both Fitzhugh and state Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, in whose district sits the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, are calling for legislative hearings.

There's been a "lot of turnover" at the Bledsoe facility in Pikeville, Bailey said.

"I think we need to come up with a new pay scale for these correctional officers and I think we also need to put in an incentive pay-raise plan for these officers so we can continue to be on top of the corrections process," said Bailey, who is talking with Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, about holding hearings.

Fitzhugh also wants hearings.

WSMV-TV reported Tuesday that one exhausted correctional officer at Bledsoe crashed his vehicle when he fell asleep following a 16-hour shift.

In his written response Wednesday to questions posed by Fitzhugh at a July 14 meeting, Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said officials cannot state with certainty that the overtime policy is to blame for departures.

"We are unable to fully determine if the 28-day schedule contributed to their decision to leave TDOC as exit surveys are not always completed by the departing employee," Schofield's response said.

Moreover, Schofield said, the department can't compare the prison guard resignation rate with prior years just yet because it was only fully implemented across the entire prison system in the fiscal year that began July 1.

It apparently will take a full year to make valid departmentwide comparisons.

Fitzhugh doesn't fault Schofield - he says the commissioner is simply trying to comply with Haslam administration directives to cut costs.

In a post for employees, the department said it is running television and radio ads in Memphis to attract new applicants. And the department noted it has always had high turnover rates.

But Fitzhugh said policies are spurring correctional officers at the West Tennessee Penitentiary in Henning, which is in his district, to give him an earful about having to work double shifts to make up for short-staff situations, leaving them exhausted and more vulnerable to attack by dangerous felons.

He said guards tell him the prison is now understaffed by 120 to 200 officers, as much as a third of total workers.

In a letter to Schofield on Tuesday, Fitzhugh complained the commissioner had not responded to other questions on staffing issues he posed at their meeting.

"These individuals [staffers] are frightened," Fitzhugh wrote. "They feel as if the prisons are understaffed to the point that guards are no longer safe. Individuals whose jobs were never intended to interact with prisoners are now forced to do so by attrition."

Fitzhugh added that his concern is "these chronic understaffing issues are part of a larger plan to privatize our prison system or to close some facilities."

The "continued unwillingness to fill open positions has created a chaotic situation," he noted and added, "I hope that it is not the commissioner or the administration's intent to allow such chaos in hopes of building public support for turning our prisons over to private companies."

A day later on Wednesday, Schofield responded to his questions.

Two previous Republican governors - Lamar Alexander and Don Sundquist - worked with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America in unsuccessful efforts to privatize Tennessee's entire prison system. Sundquist's former finance commissioner, John Ferguson, later joined CCA and is now the company's board's chairman. Also serving on the board is Mark Emkes, a former Haslam finance commissioner.

photo Lawrence Kemp, left, a correctional officer at the Middle Tennessee Correctional Complex in Nashville, Tenn., guards a gate as marathon runners pass by in the recreation yard on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003. Runners from area running clubs joined inmates for several different runs in the prison yard during the "Jaunt in the Joint."

Bailey told a reporter he had just come from a visit with the Pikeville facility's warden, Doug Cook, who not long ago replaced another warden. Cook is doing a good job and fixing problems, Bailey said.

Cook, he said, told him around 23 new people have just completed a correctional training class and are scheduled to come on line. A new class of 28 people will begin.

"That's going to help," Bailey said. "That's one of the reasons we're having overtime issues, because we simply do not have enough personnel to take care of the pods and prison system."

In their 1980s response to Tennessee prison overcrowding, violence, riots and a federal court order, the General Assembly created a Corrections Oversight Committee which was tasked with forcing the state into addressing problems.

New prisons were built, new policies were enacted and more. The panel kept tabs on the system until 2012, when Republican lawmakers abolished all formal oversight committees, saying they were no longer necessary and their functions could be handled by the House and Senate Government Operations committees and standing committees.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.

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