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Tennessee Department of Corrections Struggles To Keep The Lid On Prison Crisis

The Tennessee Department of Corrections is threatening and intimidating corrections officers speaking out against dangerous work conditions, according to a letter [PDF] published on August 27 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. The organization asked the DOC to clearly state it will not seek to silence or retaliate against employees for their speech.

Tennessee modified the work schedules of corrections officers last summer from a forty hour work week to increments of twenty eight days. Now, in order for an officer to get paid overtime, they must first complete a twenty eight day work cycle instead of a seven day cycle. The officers work for six days and then have three days off. The state claims the effort to reduce overtime costs saved taxpayers over $1 million.

But some believe these austerity measures put staff and inmates at heightened risk of violence. Corrections officers in the state are now resigning in droves, although officials say attempts to connect the change in scheduling and the exodus are “flawed.” Nonetheless, two TN prisons went on lock-down at the end of July due to staffing shortages. Some guards are being asked to work back-to-back shifts. Since officers typically work 8.5 hour shifts, that means they are working for seventeen hours before driving home.

As a result, officers reported falling asleep at work or behind the wheel. There were multiple inmate fights and attacks on corrections officers in recent months as well. And now that CO’s are speaking out about the scheduling change, the DOC is getting aggressive.

According to the ACLU, “TDOC employees are being verbally reprimanded by their superiors for participating in rallies and speaking to state legislators about their concerns.” Others were threatened with retaliation “once the dust settles,” or that “internal affairs officers would attend any protest or rallies to take photographs and record the names of those who participate.”

The ACLU argues this behavior has a serious chilling effect on speech and transparency efforts, and is a gross violation of officers’ first amendment rights. They note the officers’ status as public employees does not curtail their rights to speak on matters of public concern.

When I asked the TNDOC if they would comply with the ACLU’s request to re-affirm the free speech rights of its employees, they responded, “In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Schofield affirmed the rights of the staff when he acknowledged their passion for the department even though their opinions differ. He also thanked the thanked the staff that spoke before the legislature. ”

It’s important that officers feel they can speak out about their working conditions in a place that, by its very nature, is so removed from the public eye. This is especially true because the problems facing TN prisons go well beyond under staffing. They’re also overcrowded. The Tennessean found that TNDOC prisons were operating at 98.5% capacity — a level at which the governor has the legal right to declare an overcrowding emergency and reduce the inmate population via early probation. But the state has so far declined to consider this option, telling reporters, “We consistently utilize efficient bed management strategies to ensure that we are optimizing our resources and taxpayer funding.”

Meanwhile, the state has denied the press access to staffing rosters that describe the number and length of shifts worked by individual CO’s. One warden threatened to ‘detain’ officers who take the rosters off-site. Officials are even pointing to in-house statistics that purport show violence is declining. But guards are saying they’re lying, and claim pressure is being put on wardens to under-report incidents.

There were rumors Governor Bill Haslam was considering privatizing the state prison system, but his chief of staff swore that would not happen. Now the TNDOC is calling for an “independent review” and an accreditation process to be conducted by the American Correctional Association, at a cost of $5,000. But while the ACA is one of the most well-known accreditation bodies around, it should be noted the association basically sells accreditation for a few thousand dollars (sometimes waiving certain criteria for applicants) and provides its services without any government oversight.

Unlike lobbying, there is no mandated reporting on the relationships between associations, for-profit contractors and corrections, who often meet and conduct business at association events or attend trainings sponsored by groups like the ACA. So it’s a bit difficult to gauge just how ‘independent’ the review will be.

The TNDOC said in an email that, “Much like the Bar Association and the American Medical Association are the governing bodies for attorneys and doctors, the American Correctional Association is the body that correction departments look to for leadership, guidance and best practices. ”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that officers worked sixteen and a half hour shifts, when in fact they work for eight and a half hour shifts. The error has been amended and other edits were made for clarity.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.