Violence prompts lockdowns at two state prisons

Outbreaks of violence left Tennessee prisons at opposite ends of the state on “lockdown” status last week as Department of Correction officials continued to deal with controversy over a change in work policy for guards that was intended to reduce overtime costs.

The Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tenn., was placed on lockdown after an officer suffered minor injuries, according to a department spokesman who gave no details. The Mountain City Tomahawk newspaper quoted an “inside source” as saying the incident involved a gang known as The Crips, which has about 70 members among inmates at the prison, and that “several inmates involved in the outbreak of violence” were subsequently relocated to the state’s Morgan County prison. The latest incident came a year after a northeast inmate was killed in a gang-related attack.

The Northwest Correctional Complex at Tiptonville, Tenn., was placed on lockdown after eight inmates were stabbed Friday in an outbreak of gang violence, according to a department statement. Seven ambulances were used to transport the eight injured prisoners to two different West Tennessee hospitals, The Tennessean reported Sunday.

The newspaper also says “several prison workers” have expressed concern about safety because of a severe manpower shortage that occurred after the state switched correctional officers from a traditional 40-hour-workweek to a 28-day schedule to save $1.4 million in overtime costs.

That came as the department expanded its executive payroll, adding three new positions — a chief of staff making $125,352 a year and two additional deputy commissioners making $129,900 a year — and increased salaries of other top officials. In all, 16 department officials now make $96,000 or more per year compared to just four in 2010. The starting wage for a correctional officer is $27,070.

A spokeswoman told the newspaper the executive changes resulted from the Department of Correction in 2012 taking over functions of the former Board of Pardons and Paroles and from a 2013 study that recommended salary adjustments for various positions. Gov. Bill Haslam administration pushed both the consolidation and the salary adjustments that were recommended, as well as the change in staff work policy.

The department statement on Friday’s Northwest Tennessee prison violence said an investigation “has revealed the incident resulted from a conflict between two rival gangs in a local community spilling over into the prisons.

“Inmates with alliances to illegal gangs make up nearly one third of our inmate population. While our inmate population has grown more violent, our staff continues to implement processes that enhance security,” the statement says. “The quick response and containment of the incident at Northwest demonstrates are processes are effective in being prepared to transition from normal operations to enhanced security protocols.”

The recent outbreaks apparently represent a reversal of a trend of declining state prison violence. Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield, writing in the debut issue of The Mission, a new magazine published by the department, wrote earlier this year that one reason Tennessee has “the best correctional agency in the nation” was a 29 percent decline in violent incidents since 2011.