NASHVILLE -- State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says he made a "mistake" in 2012 by sponsoring a bill that abolished most legislative oversight panels, including the General's Assembly's Corrections Oversight Committee.
With concerns now erupting over Tennessee prison overtime policy changes and the impact on staffing and safety, McCormick said the controversy underscores the need to restore some oversight panels, including the corrections oversight.
"I think we do need to reinstitute some of the oversight committees, including corrections," said the Chattanooga Republican. "It was a mistake for me to carry that bill in the first place. Should never have done it."
McCormick said his views began shifting last legislative session when he threw his support behind an ultimately unsuccessful effort seeking to restore two oversight panels, although neither one involved corrections.
It failed to gain traction in the Senate.
"The Legislature has an oversight responsibility and to have the oversight committee in place and meeting on a regular basis rather than waiting until something goes wrong and then reacting to a situation and holding hearings," McCormick said.
Last week, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, announced their chambers' respective State and Local Government Committees, both standing committees, have scheduled hearings on the current controversy.
The Department of Correction's overtime policy change, which began phasing in a year ago, makes it harder for guards to qualify for overtime. Instead of getting overtime for hours worked beyond the 40-hour work week, the correctional officers are now on a 28-day schedule before they qualify.
While Department of Correction employees in six security classifications received 5 percent raises through a pool of nearly $6.6 million, critics say already low-paid guards are voting with their feet and leaving. Since last August, 322 guards have left, leaving other correctional officers sometimes pulling double shifts to make up the difference, lawmakers say.
But Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield and other members of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's administration deny the change is the root cause of departures and also say prisons are not understaffed. The department traditionally has had high staff-turnover rates, they say, especially in rural areas. With an improving economy, workers are leaving for better paying private-sector jobs, they maintain.
The department is running television ads in Middle and East Tennessee to encourage more people to apply for state prison vacancies.
Neither Harwell nor Ramsey responded specifically to questions from the Times Free Press about reinstating the Corrections Oversight Committee. Abolishing various oversight panels in 2012 was trumpeted at the time by Ramsey as saving the state taxpayers more than $700,000.
And Ramsey has said joint meetings of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees can provide oversight. The panels, which meet year-round, are intended to keep an eye over all functions of state government, usually but not always based on six-year Comptroller audits.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who has West Tennessee Penitentiary in his district and has been critical of Department of Correction policies, said he was glad the speakers had moved on hearings. But while that's a "good start," Fitzhugh said the Correction Oversight Committee should be re-established.
"I think it just points out the fact that when you've got two or three different committees — no coordination and you once had a Correction Oversight Committee with a staff — it would have certainly been easier to have hearings much quicker and much more coordinated," Fitzhugh said.
"Piggy-backing" responsibility for hearings on standing committees, which normally don't meet outside the part-time Legislature's regular session, makes it more difficult to have regular oversight and develop expertise, said Fitzhugh. And that helps keep lawmakers and the public from getting blindsided, he said.
"We have past history" on prisons, said Fitzhugh, who had opposed the 2012 abolishment of joint House-Senate oversight panels. "We once got taken over by federal courts."
That was a reference to events 30 years ago this summer that led to creation of the Corrections Oversight Committee. It was birthed amid state inmate riots in July 1985 that left prisons ablaze as Tennessee reeled from a prison overcrowding crisis that had already landed the state in federal court.
A U.S. District judge ultimately appointed a "master" who rode herd on state officials to get their jail houses in order. Meanwhile, state lawmakers created the oversight panel. A former Democratic senator who served on the special panel that evolved into the Corrections Oversight Committee, Bob Rochelle, said the oversight helped the state.
"The tipping point that started it all in '85 was you had years and years of governors sort of putting corrections over to the side," Rochelle said. For a long time, the system had not operated "terribly well," he said.
At that time, "it was overcrowding prisons, misclassifying prisoners and having folks who really didn't have a sounding board or other people saying how can we do it better," Rochelle said. "That's when they started burning prisons down."
Neither Rochelle nor anyone else is saying Tennessee's prison system today is anywhere near that bad a shape, although Fitzhugh says correctional officers tell him felons' infractions are not being tallied correctly with the result they are not being put under closer supervision.
Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield insists that's not the case.
Before 1985, Rochelle said, lawmakers' only process for keeping up with corrections was "where if you were a senator or a representative and you had a prison in your district, you'd go out and meet with the guards once in a while. There really wasn't much expertise."
What became the Corrections Oversight Committee provided it, he said, by among other things, hiring its own prison consultant and holding regular meetings to review plans for new prisons as the state built its way out of the overcrowding crisis. The panel for years kept a close eye on statistics involving staff-to-inmate ratios, pay, inmate violence, assaults on staff and other indicators of problems.
But, Rochelle said, "the main advantage of having a legislative oversight committee was it encouraged the executive branch to have to explain why they were proposing actions. Corrections, a lot of times, well, folks have bright ideas. And sometimes those bright ideas aren't thought through."
Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, is a freshman senator whose district includes the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. After hearing repeated complaints from correctional officers, Bailey said, "at this time, I'm not advocating for a special committee to be established.
"What I would like to see is the State and Local Government Committee seriously start looking and holding some hearings on the issues we're seeing in the prison system today." He wants to see that process and the administration's response "to correct those problems before we create a special committee."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said state employees got a 5 percent raise this year. The story has been updated to read that Department of Correction employees in six security classifications received 5 percent raises through a pool of nearly $6.6 million.