Tennessee Department of Correction seeks $9.8M budget boost, CoreCivic contract increase

Tommy Gonzales sets up a tent as demonstrators protest outside the headquarters of CoreCivic Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Tennessee-based company is one of the nation's largest private prison operators and also runs eight immigration detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Tennessee Department of Correction is seeking a $9.8 million budget boost next year primarily linked to a payment increase for private prison operator CoreCivic.

CoreCivic is contracted to run four Tennessee prisons that house roughly 7,500 inmates — about 16% of the state's penitentiary population.

The proposed $1.4 billion Department of Correction budget for the next fiscal year includes a $7 million increase for CoreCivic's operations at South Central Correctional Facility in Wayne County, about halfway between Nashville and Memphis.

Despite questions over inmate deaths in its Tennessee prisons and $17.7 million in state fines for operation shortcomings since 2020, state leaders approved the company's contract extension including the pay hike over the summer.

(READ MORE: Lawmaker raises specter of federal takeover of Tennessee prison system)

In federal lawsuits, parents of three inmates who died in CoreCivic-run prisons over a four-month span in 2021 accused the company of putting shareholder profits ahead of safety and a failure to oversee guards. In lawsuits, the company has been accused of holding costs at bay by refusing to seek outside medical care for ailing inmates, ignoring drug smuggling by its own guards and failing to ensure inmates were safe.

A 2020 audit by the Tennessee Comptroller faulted both CoreCivic and the Tennessee Department of Correction for failing to properly document inmate deaths and identify the causes. Auditors found that the department and CoreCivic improperly identified the official cause of death for eight of 38 inmates who died in custody between 2017 and 2019.

The nation's largest private prison operator remains one of the biggest power players in Tennessee politics. Headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee, CoreCivic has spent $3.6 million on lobbying and donations to Tennessee lawmakers since 2019, making it one of the state's top 25 political spenders, according to a Tennessee Lookout analysis of political spending.

Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Frank Strada outlined the remainder of the multi-million budget increase being sought for other private contractors who provide mental health and risk assessment services.

(READ MORE: Private jail company CoreCivic is pulling out of contract with Hamilton County)

Tennessee's correctional department oversees nearly 25,300 incarcerated men and women, 12,400 parolees and 62,500 offenders on probation and in community corrections, according to the department's data.

The state continues to struggle to fill correction officer positions in state-run prisons, Strada told Gov. Bill Lee during a public budget presentation Tuesday.

Despite relocation stipends, hiring bonuses and extra pay for high-security prisons, the state is still short 650 officers, he said.

"We're not losing, but we're not gaining; we're just maintaining," Strada said.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.