At a Sunset Hearing January 13, 2020, members of the Joint Subcommittee of Government Operations listen to testimony by Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker. Despite a damning audit of Tennessee prisons, lawmakers voted to let TDOC operate for another four years.

NASHVILLE, TN –At a Sunset Hearing January 13, state lawmakers gave the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) until 2024 before revisiting the question of whether it should be abolished.

The Comptroller’s office released a scathing audit last week of Tennessee prisons, both private and state run. TDOC still has many of the same problems cited in a November 2017 audit.

The 210-page report had 18 findings, 13 observations, and 3 matters for lawmakers to consider. The Joint Subcommittee of Government Operations voted to call TDOC officials back in two years to find out if they corrected deficiencies in how state prions are being run.

The report found understaffing, sexual assaults, poor medical services, failure to report violent incidents and investigate them properly, failure to test inmates for drug use, and a lack of oversight by prison officials in three TDOC-run prisons and three prisons run by CoreCivic, a private prison contractor.

TDOC fined two contractors, Centurion and Corizon, $2.1 million for failing to provide medical services. But they let them work off the fines with overtime and a program to treat Hepatitis C, something not in the contract. TDOC’s “value-added credit system” issued credits to the vendors to reduce their fines and TDOC only collected $92,020 from Centurion and nothing from Corizon.

“This is just plain bizarre, “ said State Comptroller Justin Wilson. He said creating a stress management program, for example, was a probably a good idea but since it falls outside the contract it couldn’t properly be substituted for things vendors were paid to do but didn’t.

“I’ve been involved in state government for many years and I’ve never seen a contract interpretation like this,” he told the subcommittee.

State auditors found discrepancies in how TDOC reported 8 inmate deaths in the six prisons they investigated. Prison staffers entered “Natural” on TDOC’s Incident Reporting computer screen but the Department of Health said five deaths were accidental overdoses of fentanyl, one was a murder, one was a suicide, and another is still under investigation.

Auditors analyzed a list of 171 inmate deaths from October 1, 2017 to July 31, 2019 and found 38 deaths given questionable causes when matched with certified death certificates.

The TDOC acknowledged some of the audit’s recommendations with a curt “Concur” and said it would modify its operations “to ensure the identified weaknesses are promptly remediated with effective internal controls”.

The auditors found problems in procurement, record-keeping, poor monitoring of offenders released into the community, and a recidivism rate of 47%.

About half of Tennessee’s convicts reoffend within 3 years and are back in prison despite $10.5 million spent on high school and college education for inmates. TDOC does not report recidivism rates for inmates who have gotten diplomas or degrees in prison but research shows they are 43% less likely to return. Auditors recommended TDOC provide lawmakers with those numbers to see if TDOC’s educational programs are paying off.

TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker thanked the Office of the Comptroller for its work and told lawmakers TDOC consistently gets high marks in its annual inspections. Prison activists say that’s because TDOC and CoreCivic know when TDOC’s Compliance Division will inspect them. They say extra staff is brought in and prisons are spruced up to score well. They say inspections actually hide the reality of prison operations.

“We maintain that the TDOC operates safe and secure prisons and provides effective community supervision. The majority of the findings can be attributed to technology challenges, delayed reporting, and the staff shortages that our state, like many others, currently experience,” Parker said in a statement.

“The department and CoreCivic, the company that runs private prisons, both institutions are obviously not capable of running the prisons to a standard that any citizen would think acceptable,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville).

Stewart wants to resurrect the Oversight Committee on Corrections that was disbanded in 2011 and he wants to end TDOC’s private prison contracts with CoreCivic.

“These prison guards, parents, prisoners, and others, who have been raising these concerns, have been proven correct. The department is not equipped to solve these problems. We need outside oversight and outside investigations otherwise the federal courts are going to take over the prison system again,” Stewart said.

Tennessee prisons were under federal oversight from 1982 to 1993.

CoreCivic runs prisons in Clifton, Hartsville, Mason, and Whiteville that cost Tennessee taxpayers about $1 billion a year. The company runs 61 jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers in the U.S. that house about 90,000 prisoners.

“This is their business model. They get paid to do stuff and how they make their money is by not doing it,” said Paul Wright, Executive Director of Prison Legal News.

He said prison audits show deficiencies year after year but nothing ever really changes.

He noted that Republicans like private prisons because they have a non-union workforce. If all of Tennessee’s prisons were operated by the TDOC they would have union contracts and understaffing would be less of a problem.

“Once the state privatizes a portion of its prison system it kind of puts itself over a barrel because then they just lack the capacity. If Tennessee said right now ‘we’re terminating our contracts’ where are they going to put people?

They still get the contracts and the money keeps flowing to them. For the most part there is bipartisan consensus on using private prisons. It’s not like the Democrats are opposed to it and the Republicans are in favor of it. I mean the reality is that at the end of the day everyone’s down with it,” Wright said.