By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — A joint Judiciary and Government legislative subcommittee invoked the threat of Tennessee’s Sunset Law against the Department of Corrections last week and gave the troubled department one year to improve conditions at four privately-run state prisons run or face dissolution.
“One year, that’s a punishment, okay?” said Representative G.A. Hardaway. “It means they are still under our thumb. They literally don’t know how long they can survive.”
The unusual threat comes after a scathing audit of a private prison last month by the state comptroller’s office.
CoreCIvic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has changed its name but not its tune. The company began operating prisons in Tennessee in 1986. Over the years, it has frequently been criticized but rarely fined for staffing shortages, poor food and lack of medical care, fights, and arbitrary punishments at its facilities.
CoreCivic runs state prisons in Clifton, Hartsville, Mason, and Whiteville that cost taxpayers about $1 billion a year. CorCivic also runs the Davidson County Detention Facility off I-24 on Harding Place near Metro’s dog pound.
Two federal class-action lawsuits were filed earlier this year against CoreCivic after a scabies outbreak at the Metro detention center. Between 2010-2015 more than 1,000 federal lawsuits were filed against CCA. The majority involved work issues, lack of medical care, injuries, or unlawful prison conditions. The company runs 61 jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers in the U.S.
During the emotionally-charged hearing last Tuesday in the Nashville Room of the Tennessee Tower building, the mother of a Trousdale prison inmate told the committee that gang members sent her family extortion letters soliciting money so her son could shower unmolested.
“Our son Richard is in Trousdale Turner Correctional Center. He has been there since May 2016. He has lived in fear most of his time there. Our family has received many calls demanding money—entrance fees, exit fees, you looked the wrong way fees. We paid and paid until we could pay no more,” said JoAnne Holman.
A former corrections officers testified that she saw two people die in Trousdale prison from untreated medical conditions.
“I witnessed a 25-year old diabetic man screaming in pain days before his death. I tried to get him help but several nurses and members of the security staff seemed to think he was faking it,” said Ashley Dixon.
Dixon resigned after seven months at Trousdale. She said three co-workers crashed going home from work because they fell asleep at the wheel from working too many long shifts.
“Out of five correctional officers hired in my entering class only one remained when I left,” she said.
“The LGBT community is consistently being assaulted by inmates and officers,”
Paula Smith told the Tribune.
Smith is a transgender woman but incarcerated with male prisoners. She testified she was repeatedly assaulted at Trousdale prison.
“I was continually being assaulted, being denied medicines they are legally required to provide, harassed, I had officers constantly asking for sexual favors. I personally witnessed other people being assaulted,” she said.
Mildred Larue has a transgender partner at Trousdale.
“There are more transgender people in prison than you would ever realize and it’s not safe for women to be in a men’s prison,” Larue said.
“Something needs to change. People are dying there. You don’t hear about it but they’re dying there. When they pass away, they call an ambulance and the ambulance takes them to the hospital and they are declared deceased at the hospital,” she said
Representative Bo Mitchell asked Trousdale’s warden, Rusty Washburn, how many inmates get out, reoffend, and return to prison. He didn’t know.
“Direction and guidance comes from the top. If we’ve got a warden who doesn’t know what the recidivism rate is, it’s certainly not being prioritized,” said G.A. Hardaway.
TDOC chief Tony Parker told Mitchel the recidivism rate in Tennessee prisons has declined from 48.6 percent to 47.1 percent.
Mitchell didn’t let Parker off the hook and criticized him for only fining CoreCIvic $43,000 after a scathing audit last month found numerous contract violations.
“Forty-three thousand dollars is not even a parking ticket to these folks. You are not going to get their attention with $43,000 when they are spending a billion Tennessee taxpayers’ dollars that you could use in your department to run a state-run facility and probably run it a whole lot better for less money,” Mitchell told Parker.
Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor of Prison Legal News and a former inmate, noted a clause in the contract with CoreCivic that pays for 90 percent of prison beds at Trousdale whether they are used or not.
“So if the occupancy rate drops below 90 percent we’re going to be paying for empty beds. This same provision is in the contracts for Hardeman County in Whiteville,” Friedmann said.
“He needs help. My son is sick. He is depressed. He has no job, no schooling, and he has mentioned to us seeing no hope and no reason to keep on living,” Homan told the committee.
“One day our son will come home,” she said. “We want him to come home a man with hope for a better future, a better life, a home, a family, looking forward to taking his place in community as a productive member of society not a bitter sick broken man.”
“These private prisons have the large amount of the business of rehabbing our citizens. They are not doing the job so why are we paying them for a job they’re not doing?” asked G.A. Hardaway.
The committee unanimously voted to give TDOC one year to clean up its act. They will meet again early next year with prison officials.
“Between now and then the DOC has got to start penalizing CoreCivic for the job they are not doing. That’s what we will be monitoring in between,” said Hardaway.
“At some point we will understand that everything that government does can’t be privatized because our mission is not profit, it’s people,” he said.