TDOC commissioner to legislators: Prisons are safe, violence is down

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield told lawmakers on Monday that the state’s prisons are safe despite staff vacancies and recent violence at two of its prisons.

Schofield’s appearance before the House State Government Committee came amid the department switching correctional officers from a traditional 40-hour work week to a 28-day schedule. The change is expected to save $1.4 million in overtime costs.

Critics say the change has caused staffers to leave, which has impacted prison safety. Last month, eight prisoners were injured in stabbings at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, and the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City was placed on lockdown after an incident that injured an officer.

Schofield acknowledged that vacancies do exist, but said they’re mainly at three correction facilities in West Tennessee and that some staffers simply left for private employment.

Regardless, he doesn’t believe the scheduled change is a factor and added that safety can be maintained with current staffing levels.

He noted that there’s been a 37 percent reduction in violent offender assaults since 2010.

“The bottom line is, our prisons are safe, and violence is down,” Schofield said.

In the case of the stabbings at the Tiptonville facility, an investigation revealed they were a result of tensions between rival gang members. No prison staff was injured.

Schofield said Monday the fact that no staffers were hurt is an example that outbreaks can be handled adequately.

“We were prepared; we did exactly what was supposed to be done,” he said.

Following the hearing, Schofield addressed questions from reporters, including one about recent data that shows the Tennessee prison system is at a capacity level that could allow for an overcrowding emergency to be declared.

According to data obtained by The Tennessean, the prison system was operating at 98.5 percent capacity as of June 30, with 95.1 percent of total beds filled. State law says if the in-house prison capacity exceeds 95 percent for more than 30 days, the commissioner can ask the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency.

However, Gov. Bill Haslam and the Correction Department have said no overcrowding emergency exists.

Schofield said Monday that “in terms of what’s on that report, that is really to help us to monitor and make good use of our beds that are in the system.”

“It makes sense for us in terms of how we manage those beds right now,” he said.

In a recent interview with The Tennessean, Haslam said prisons should operate near full capacity.

“I would think that what a state would want is to a have a system that is somewhere between 90 and 100 percent full,” he said. “You don’t want to be at 110 percent, there are some states that are there. And you don’t want to be at 70 or 80 percent because that means you’ve way overbuilt your capacity.”

Note: See also The Tennessean. An excerpt:

“The bottom line is, I know what I’m doing,” Schofield said during the hearing.

After the hearing, he said the state prison system has operated and continues to operate under an emergency overcrowding directive since at least 1995, contradicting a statement provided to The Tennessean last week by a spokeswoman.

Schofield acknowledged that, at times, the rate of pay for correction officer “overtime” is actually the same rate paid during normal work. He acknowledged some officers are working consecutive 16-hour-a-day shifts, but argued the state stopped forcing officers to work back-to-back doubles at some point in the past six months.

He does not believe staffing, overcrowding or any other issues — all cited as causes of concern by inmates, officers and others who have contacted The Tennessean recently — are creating a significant problem in the Tennessee prison system.

“What I do know is that we provide a good environment for our staff to work in. We provide systems in place. Some of our employees may not like it, but it doesn’t make it wrong,” Schofield said.