NASHVILLE — Tennessee Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said he will revise controversial staff schedules and definitions of inmate-on-guard assaults that have led to unrest among correctional officers.
"This is not just a Band-Aid. This is a complete review," Schofield assured members of the state Senate Corrections Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Schofield said he will work with the Tennessee State Employees Association to survey correctional officers at all prisons on whether they prefer eight-hour or 12-hour shifts. That could be decided on a prison-by-prison basis, Schofield said.
Moreover, the department will work with attorneys to change the legal definitions of inmate assaults on guards and fellow prisoners. The work has to be done carefully, Schofield cautioned, because it requires matching coding on incident classifications with resulting disciplinary actions. He said most schedule and classification changes won't occur until January.
Schofield did not directly answer questions posed by one lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, as to whether the commissioner was acknowledging he had erred on the work schedule and classifications and definitions of assaults.
An independent review was conducted by experts with the American Correctional Association at Schofield's request amid concerns over increased guard turnover, violence and understaffing.
The panel, which included a former Louisiana state prison chief, recommended doing away with Tennessee prison rules that makes injury necessary for an assault charge. Other incidents were classified as a "provocation," a lower disciplinary offense.
The review also recommended removing officer subjectivity from the reporting process with more precise definitions. And inmates could be charged with assault if they try to harm a guard but don't actually make contact. Guards and a former prison warden have charged that higher-ups have sometimes classified attacks as lesser offenses to make rates of violence appear lower.
The panel emphasized that five of 13 prisons it visited were clean and orderly and that there have been no escapes by inmates from a secure facility since 2009. That means things are run well, the review said.
Asked earlier by reporters whether the ACA report was a repudiation of the department's policies, Gov. Bill Haslam said, "No, I don't think so. They actually recommended not going back to what we did before, but going to a 14-day schedule. Some of our facilities actually like the 28-day schedule."
Problems began when Schofield replaced a seven-day schedule with a 28-day schedule. That saved the state money, but Schofield had previously defended it as being better for guards, as well.
The move resulted in a vast increase in the amount of hours correctional officers worked before they could get overtime. It was unclear whether Schofield is addressing the overtime issue.
Pointing to the ACA report, Haslam said that "what's gotten lost in all this conversation about corrections is they also came out and said at the most fundamental level, you are running a safe, effective prison system. That's the first thing for our citizens."
Randy Stamps, director of governmental affairs with the Tennessee State Employees Association, thanked lawmakers for their concerns.
While Schofield previously denied there were major problems, Stamps said the ACA audit "is proof that a change was needed."
Stamps also said more needs to be done, saying staff-to-inmate ratios are too low at some facilities or sections of prisons. Employees are also have to deal with the gutting of state civil service protections and as well as annual longevity pay for new employees. Moreover, salaries and benefits need to be higher, said Stamps, a former Republican lawmaker.
Stamps and Democrats also called for a full audit, noting the ACA audit largely focused on the pay and assault issues.
Schofield and Stamps both said they will work with each other on the survey.
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, chairman of the full State and Local Government Committee, told them he was "very pleased the department and the TSEA have reached out to talk to each other."
"I think these are sound recommendations," he told Schofield.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com, 615-255-0550 or via twitter at AndySher1.