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Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart raises questions about a bill to allow people with handgun carry permits to store firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked during a 2013 House Civil Justice Committee meeting in Nashville

NASHVILLE -- A top Tennessee House Democrat questioned Monday whether the planned outside review of state prison problems by the American Correctional Association will provide an accurate picture, calling instead for a "truly independent" examination by a federal agency.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville also said the Republican-run Legislature should reinstate a special legislative oversight panel on prisons that GOP leaders abolished four years ago.

Stewart's comments came at a news conference during which he sought to cast doubt on the impartiality and adequacy of the ACA, an official accrediting agency. The ACA's heads are state prisons officials from across the country.

The lawmaker said Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield instead should enlist help from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It provides technical assistance and training to state prison systems when asked by states.

As reports of problems about violence against guards and alleged reclassification of such offenses to lesser categories continue to be made, not only by correctional officers but by a former prison warden, Schofield announced last week he has asked the ACA to look into those and other issues including understaffing at some state prisons.

That announcement came in a Senate State Government Committee hearing, which followed up on a similar House hearing on problems. Schofield later told reporters the ACA audit of operations at around five of the state's 13 prisons would be done on top of a preannounced audit.

Stewart sought to cast doubt on having preannounced examinations, noting it gives time to prison officials to prepare, and he questioned just how impartial the process is. He pointed to documents from the Correctional Accreditation Managers Association, an affiliate of the ACA that helps prison officials prepare for accreditation visits.

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That includes advice to prison officials on what kinds of hotels to use for housing auditors and on the offering of "gifts" to auditors, instructing prison officials to spend no more than $25 on such gifts for auditors and to make sure they can be "easily carried on a plane."

"Everything we see about the organization suggests that it is essentially working hand in hand with our correctional management," Stewart said. "That may serve some purposes, but it disqualifies it as the organization that should be conducting this particular independent review."

He said there is "no reason to believe [the ACA] is anything more than a rubber stamp."

"We need an independent outside group and we also need to reverse the very, very poor decision by Republicans in the legislature to get rid of the Corrections Oversight Committee," Stewart said.

Meanwhile, Stewart said, "I think the best thing the commissioner could do is invite the NIC in to do a truly independent audit. We don't have the Corrections Oversight Committee so, unfortunately, we don't have a team of legislative experts that have spent years learning about our prisons like we used to."

Shortly after assuming total control of the Legislature in 2011, Republicans abolished the panel. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said recently it was "probably a mistake." But Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said regular committees can handle such work. Stewart said they're trying, but only after problems erupt.

He said if Schofield and Tennessee Department of Correction officials, who say there is no real problem due to their policies, are indeed correct, "they should have no reason to fear a truly independent investigation."

Stewart also questioned state officials' figures indicating that prison violence is down. It amounts to little more than "a shell game," he said, because the agency reclassified assaults. "We've been hearings assaults are down. But as assaults went down, related provocations went up, so it's pretty obvious that what you've got is a reclassification."

Asked about Stewart's remarks about the ACA, TDOC spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said that "much like the Bar Association and the American Medical Association are the governing bodies for attorneys and doctors, the American Correctional Association and the National Institute of Corrections are both organizations that correction departments look to for leadership, guidance and best practices.

"In the past," Taylor said, "we've worked with and attended trainings provided by both entities. While we've asked ACA to conduct this review, we will continue our ongoing relationship with NIC, as well."

The department is now working with NIC officials to determine when the review will take place, Taylor said.

Contact Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.

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