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Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.

NASHVILLE — After months of controversies over safety and working conditions for prison guards under embattled Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield's policies, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is suggesting it's time for "new leadership" at the agency.

Ramsey, the Senate speaker, said that since Schofield works for fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, "it's completely up to him."

"But there are times that come in every department where a change at the top would help," he added.

Asked for comment, Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said via email Friday night: "An independent review in October said the state was running a safe, effective prison system, and the governor has no intention of asking Commissioner Schofield to resign."

Ramsey's comments came during a question-and-answer session Friday with reporters. Schofield is under fire in areas ranging from changes to prison guard work schedules and high guard vacancy rates to his controversial redefinition of violent inmate-on-guard assaults.

A former top Georgia prisons official, Schofield has repeatedly defended his policies. But he recently offered to let correctional officers at the various facilities decide the length of their work schedule, and he is asking Haslam to raise their pay.

Now Schofield is retooling definitions of inmate-on-guard and inmate-on-inmate attacks in response to recommendations made by experts from the American Correctional Association who toured several Tennessee prisons last fall.

Haslam and Schofield insist the commissioner's policies have made Tennessee prisons safer and point to departmental statistics showing fewer violent incidents. But lawmakers, correctional officers, the Tennessee State Employees Association and former department officials charge that's attributable to the reclassification of assaults.

The latest issue stems from Schofield's acknowledgement during a budget hearing this month that some members of criminal gangs have managed to get hired as paid correctional cadets and received some training before being discovered.

Last week, WSMV-TV reported that some gang-affiliated cadets made it all the way through the Tennessee Correction Academy in Tullahoma and were placed to work in prisons before their gang affiliations were discovered.

"This could be a catastrophe waiting to happen," Lauren Broming, former TDOC cadet instructor, told the television station.

Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested in recent months that Schofield should resign, but Haslam has said his job is safe.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Dec 4, 2012 - Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield shows attendees a commemorative key to the $208 million Bledsoe County Correctional Complex Monday. The key was a gift to certain people in attendance following a ribbon cutting.

"I have complete faith in Commissioner Schofield," the governor said after the budget hearing. "I think Commissioner Schofield is among the leading commissions of corrections in the whole country."

Schofield told the Tennessee State Employees Association, which has criticized correction department policies, that he had no intention of stepping down.

But now Ramsey, a powerful player who often backs Haslam, is saying that not only will there be hearings by the Senate State and Local Government Committee on the criminal gang-infiltration issue, but that he believes Schofield should go.

"Obviously it concerns me," Ramsey said of the cadet issue. "I don't know where we're going to end up with this in the next legislative session. I think we all have concerns. It's not over, it's not finished. You're going to continue to see us hold hearings on this."

The panel's chairman is is Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who has a prison in his district.

Ramsey added context to his comments about Schofield, noting he was a "huge fan" of Haslam's former education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, whose often fierce approach to education reform shook up — and infuriated — teachers and local school superintendents alike.

At one point, nearly half of the schools chiefs signed a petition complaining about Huffman. He stepped down last year in a battle over Common Core education standards and other issues, despite the National Assessment of Educational Progress reporting Tennessee students making the largest gains of any state in the nation.

"I really was [a Huffman fan]. I thought he brought change to education," Ramsey said. "But even at that, when he was stirring the pot so much, there comes a time when you just step aside."

"We may be at that point in the Department of Correction," Ramsey added.

"I'm going to let the governor decide that, but you can interpret what I just said there to say that it needs to be looked at. Just for the sake of the department, for the sake of morale. And that's not unusual at all to say that it's time for new leadership."

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

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