Fitzhugh, Yager question new prison work policy

Two legislators are questioning a new state Department of Correction work scheduling policy amid reports of attacks on guards and manpower shortages at state prisons, reports The Tennessean.

“I do believe there are some unintended consequences that have occurred that need to be addressed immediately,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who chairs a committee that oversees the agency’s budget and has one of the state’s largest prisons in his district.

Yager spoke with Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield last week. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, talked with the commissioner on Tuesday about conditions at a prison in his district.

Prison security forces have become so understaffed that correctional officers are working double shifts, and some are going across state to temporarily fill vacancies where staffing shortages are the worst. People who work in the prisons have told The Tennessean they worry that the manpower shortage will make a dangerous job deadly.

Yager and Fitzhugh said they are concerned about violence because they’ve heard from their constituents.

…Severe staffing shortages began as the state converted officers from a traditional 40-hour week to a 28-day schedule to save overtime costs. The change resulted in some officers quitting, and those left behind having to work doubles.

…”The commissioner indicates to me strongly that they certainly have the personnel (at West Tennessee State Penitentiary) to make it safe for the inmates, for the guards and for the public. But the question is how long can this go on?” Fitzhugh said.

Yager said he has specifically asked Schofield for an incident report about an assault on correctional officers around July 10. He has also asked for up-to-date figures on turnover rates.

“I am aware of these concerns, and we should take them very seriously,” Yager said. “I am waiting until I get the data that I asked for before I make any further decision. But I will stay with this issue until we have a positive resolution on it.”

The idea of converting to a 28-day work schedule was part of the governor’s “Top to Bottom” efficiency review in 2012. But the staggered implementation at state prisons didn’t happen until 2014 and this year.

Yager and Fitzhugh stressed that Schofield was doing his job in trying to cut department costs at the bequest of Gov. Bill Haslam and the legislature. That budgeting process forced Schofield into a corner, Fitzhugh argued.

“He had to come up with a 7 percent budget cut last year … the governor required that, and he works for the governor, and he did it. And I think he did it the best way he could,” Fitzhugh said.

..”The new scheduling wasn’t tied to the budget exercise,” said Haslam spokesman David Smith.

“This is in line with the department’s long-term goal of being more efficient and effective, and it’s consistent with what many other law enforcement agencies use.”