By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — After a hearing with angry lawmakers one year ago, CoreCivic didn’t come back for a review of its operations at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, one of four state prisons it operates in Tennessee.
Last week Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker told a joint Judiciary and Government subcommittee that the private prison company has cleaned up its act. Lawmakers had given CoreCivic a year to comply with its contract after a scathing 2017
audit found several deficiencies.
“We have observed over-all the compliance with the contract has improved,” Parker told the committee last week.
Parker said the DOC had installed eight monitors in CoreCivic prisons to check on staffing levels. Parker said in the past Hartsville and Trousdale staffing reports “were unreliable”. What he meant was that CoreCivic had been fudging their records.
Without enough guards, especially at a place like Trousdale, prison gangs quickly take over. Family, friends, and former inmates testified at the hearing. They said Trousdale is a still a human warehouse and sometimes one guard covers two pods at the same time. That is 200 inmates.
“One pod is frequently left completely unstaffed,” said Susan Ferkin, who has a friend at Trousdale.
“Gang members move about the compound freely, going in and out of pods where they do not belong, even during lockdowns,” she said. Ferkin said DOC and CoreCIvic are supposed to keep staff and inmates safe. “The fact is, neither are,” she said.
Parker said DOC has created a single comprehensive tracking document and it gets reviewed twice weekly. He said DOC has also installed “audit instruments to strengthen our ability to monitor compliance,” Parker testified. He did not specify what those were.
Parker said Trousdale’s inspection scores have risen from 85.4 percent to 95 percent.
Last year the state comptroller’s office found 66 violations there. This year they found 26. Parker said Hartsville had 22 findings in 2017. This year it had only 10.
“All facilities are now accredited by the American Correctional Association. Trousdale just recently finished their accreditation for last year. They had 100% with mandatory standards 98.6 with non-mandatory standards,” Parker said.
“Trousdale seems to have passed their audit with flying colors,” said Ferkin. She said staffing levels are higher prior to and during inspections because CoreCivic imports guards from its other facilities. She said after inspectors leave, staffing levels return to skeleton crews.
“It angers me to hear that things are improving when in fact they aren’t. It is my opinion that either this committee believes that we are all lying about what is really going on at Trousdale or it is comfortable in denying that there are major problems with this facility,” Ferkin testified.
Edwin Steakley recounted being raped and forced to perform oral sex at Trousdale. “Do you know what it is like to be held down by five men and raped?” he asked the stunned committee.
Steakley started writing authorities shortly after the assaults began in 2016. He wrote Parker, TN State Senator Jon Lundberg from Bristol (R-District 4), and the U.S. Department of Justice. He didn’t hear back from anyone.
“We are committed to the safety and dignity of every inmate entrusted to our care. We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and every allegation of this nature is reported to our government partner and investigated fully,” said Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic Director of Public Affairs.
Parker said CoreCIvic boosted guards’ starting pay from $11.75/hr to $16.50/hr. They get a $2,000 retention bonus after several months on the job and the company is paying $10,000 to get people to relocate and work at Trousdale.
“That has significantly reduced the vacancies at Trousdale from a high of sixty in March last year. The last count was nine in November 2018,” Parker said.
“Trousdale Turner now has the highest correctional officer starting salary in the state – public or private,” Gilchrist said in an email. Tennessee pays its correctional officers less than any other state except Mississippi.
Parker told the subcommittee that DOC’s Community Supervision Division is now accredited. Compliance is up 25 percent.
“Basically, we provided some tools that so the probation officers can manage the requirements they have for inmates on community supervision,” he said.
Parker touted the success of a Memphis program where DOC instituted a system of graduated sanctions to address non-compliance by parolees that has a 73 percent success rate.
“It’s a cost-saving to the state when we can correct non-compliance in the community for $5 a day versus re-incarceration,” he said.