NASHVILLE - Eight employees at the Morgan County Regional Correctional Complex have been fired in an ongoing probe started after an inmate breached the state prison's perimeter, only to return in an apparent effort to smuggle contraband in.
Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor on Friday confirmed the employees' dismissals Friday in response to Times Free Press inquiries based on tips from several sources.
But citing an ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe, Taylor refused to say more, referring a reporter to a Jan. 26 news release posted on the department's website.
It says nothing about the staff dismissals, but it does outline how prison security staff found evidence showing inmate Robert Fusco, 36, had "breached the secure perimeter" of the facility.
"Although this case is highly unusual, it appears that the inmate was not trying to flee custody but was in fact attempting to introduce contraband into the facility," the release says.
Taylor said she doesn't intend to update the public until the TBI completes the probe sought by the department.
Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said in the release that "while I appreciate the staff for their diligence in uncovering this situation, it is obvious that security protocols were violated. This investigation is still active and ongoing."
Parker said that after gaining approval from 9th District Attorney General Russell Johnson, he reached out to the TBI "to ensure that we have a coordinated effort to investigate both internally and externally."
"Any person involved in this breach be it staff, inmate, or community members should know that we will hold them accountable and aggressively seek prosecution for their involvement," Parker warned.
The dismissals appear to have occurred after the release.
The department says it "anticipates Fusco being charged with escape due to purposefully breaching perimeter security." He has been transferred to the West Tennessee State Penitentiary as a maximum custody inmate.
In an article published Jan. 30, The Morgan County News reported that District Attorney Russell was informed on Jan. 12 about the Fusco matter.
The newspaper said Fusco was serving a life sentence and noted there were reports he had put a dummy in his bed, which went unnoticed by prison staff during "multiple" bed checks. TDOC officials did not provide an answer when questioned about those reports, the newspaper said.
The department said the "breach highlights the threat that contraband and those looking to introduce contraband pose to correctional facilities. This threat is not limited to TDOC facilities, but negatively affects prisons throughout the country."
The department also said that TDOC's chief interdiction officer, a post created last year, is actively working with law enforcement partners "at all levels to not only detect contraband but prevent contraband from entering prisons."
Tennessee officials have long warned about the dangers of smuggled contraband in state prisons. It's a national problem, as well.
The contraband includes items such as cigarettes, drugs and cell phones.
TDOC Commissioner Parker has previously raised public concerns about cell phones, a highly prized item within the walls that the department says can be used by inmates to plan attacks and intimidate victims, witnesses and correctional staff.
Last June a task force made up of nine law enforcement agencies, including TDOC, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, TBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Metro Nashville Police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a series of unannounced searches at facilities across the state.
Nearly 300 vehicle searches were conducted, leading to the recovery of cell phones and drug paraphernalia.
The department said Parker is expected to travel soon to Washington to meet with Federal Communications Commission officials to discuss ways to continue to combat banned cell phones.
Back in June, correction officials welcomed a recent Bureau of Prisons pilot program exploring the practice of micro-jamming cell phone signals to render phones inoperable inside the secure perimeter of a facility.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.