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Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield, left, takes a tour of the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in 2012.

NASHVILLE — A review by national experts of Tennessee prison operations recommends the state replace current classifications dealing with prisoner assaults on guards and also a recently implemented and controversial staff work schedule.

Among other things, the American Correctional Association says a "gap exists in the offender disciplinary process and enumerated rules in the area of staff assaults."

That's confusing to employees, the six-page report says, and it recommends dropping the current departmental rule that makes an injury necessary for an assault charge to be lodged. The change could drive up the number of reported incidents.

ACA officials outlined their recommendations Wednesday afternoon to the Senate State and Local Subcommittee after auditors' visits over three days last month to five of Tennessee's 13 prisons.

That comes after months of controversy over low correctional officer morale, high staff turnover and understaffing in some facilities, as well as charges the Tennessee Department of Correction was altering the figures on inmates' assaults on staff.

State Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield has denied playing with the assault numbers. He told reporters after the Senate hearing that he is still digesting the recommendations.

"Just like the committee, I got those this morning. We read through them. They make sense. I do appreciate them. We have to evaluate how we're going to implement [or] whether there are some things we need to tweak."

He said he doesn't think assaults are being misclassified and the department was "following the policy that we had." He noted that policy was in effect prior to his becoming commissioner in 2011.

Because of the way assaults are now classified, incidents where guards are not injured are only classified as "state-inmate provocation."

Avoiding criticism of the state, Richard Stalder, former chief of Louisiana's prisons and one of the auditors, told senators the practical effect of ACA's recommended change is that "if I swing a baseball bat at your head and just barely miss you, it should be sanctioned in the same way whether I hit you or not."

But auditors say that, overall, their examination of Tennessee prisons "reveals sustained positive outcomes." As evidence, they cite a key indicator of problems — inmates escapes from "secure" facilities.

"There have been no escapes from secure custody since February 2009. There have been no escapes in the past six years," the report says.

Some lawmakers remain wary, with Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, whose district includes the state's Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, taking issue with escape figures. He pointed out that an inmate escaped from the Northwest Correctional Facility just last month.

But Stalder and Jeffrey Washington, the Correctional Association's deputy executive director, said the inmate walked off a minimum security detail outside the prison. The report focused on "secure" facilities — that is, actual prisons.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, chairman of the full Senate panel and whose district includes the Morgan County Correctional Complex, wasn't happy the review included only five of 13 prisons.

"Why didn't you visit the other eight?" Yager pointedly asked.

Stalder said Schofield wanted a quick review as he and the Haslam administration grapple with guards' concerns and the ensuing public controversies.

During its visits, the team determined that all five units visited, including "the most secure and complex in the system, were consistently operationally disciplined, stable and productive in meeting their critical mission," the report says.

Nonetheless, ACA officials are calling for major changes in the two areas at the heart of the controversy that critics say have led to problems.

The first involved Schofield's changes in correctional officers' work week from a seven-day schedule to a 28-day schedule. The move, intended to save the state money and give all guards at least one weekend off a month, changed how overtime is accumulated and paid.

That's led to complaints from many about overtime which now can now take well over a month before it's paid. The report recommends going to a 14-day period, noting it can achieve the state's goals without being quite as disruptive.

Meanwhile, the report delved into the "gap" on assault classification.

Under Tennessee's rules, for an inmate to be charged with assaulting a staffer, the act must include the element of "intentional injury" to the employee. And if there's no injury, it's usually classified as "Staff/Inmate Provocation," a lesser offense.

The ACA report notes that the rule was originally intended to deal with "intentionally or knowingly causing physical contact with staff or another inmate that a reasonable person would regard as offense but which results in no injury."

It was intended to take into account "incidental contact" between the offender and staffer "and not assault contact," the report says.

"The result, however, of the requirement for intentional injury being present prior to the charging of an inmate for staff assault left assaultive non-injurious incidents as usually chargeable only under the provocation rules," the report says.

So experts are recommending both current classifications be scratched and for Tennessee officials to start all over with new definitions of disciplinary offenses. That includes:

Staff assault with weapon (Class A offense): Offenders shall not assault any staff member, visitor or guest using any object as a weapon. The use of teeth constitutes a violation of the rule. Contact does not necessarily have to be made for a violation.

Staff assault without weapons (Class A): "Hostile" physical contact or attempted physical contact with a staff member, visitor or guest is not permitted. Includes hitting, shoving, wrestling, kicking and "similar behaviors." Again, no contact is necessary.

Defiance (Class A or B): No offender shall curse, insult or threaten a staff member, visitor or guest "in any manner." Prohibited conduct includes abusive or insulting conversations, phone calls or gestures by any offender. Moreover, no inmate shall obstruct, resist, distract or attempt to elude staff in the performance of their duties. Nor shall any offender intimidate or attempt to intimidate staff to manipulate staff's actions.

* The report also calls for changes in classifying incidents dealing with inmate-on-inmate offenses.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or via twitter at AndySher1.

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