The Tennessee Department of Correction is getting another year to show improvement. Officials voted to reauthorize the state agency for 12 more months after a scathing audit last month highlighted severe staffing and safety concerns at several private prisons.
The state agency oversees more than 20,000 inmates. About one third of them are housed in facilities managed by CoreCivic, a private contractor formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
Inmates, family members and even former employees have publicly called out conditions inside prisons like Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville. The allegations came shortly after it opened last year.
Ashley Nixon was employed as a guard at Trousdale Turner for seven months before resigning. On top of 12 to 16 hour work shifts, she describes a continuous disregard for inmates’ health.
“I witnessed two deaths during my time there of prisoners due to medical neglect,” says Nixon. “Both experiences changed me and both deaths will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
One of those people was a diabetic who often didn’t receive his insulin shots. Nixon says he screamed in pain for days before he died. The second inmate attempted suicide by swallowing dozens of blood pressure pills. According to Nixon, the medical staff didn’t believe him. By the time they reacted, it was too late.
Speaking to lawmakers, Nixon said she heard similar complaints from guards borrowed from other CoreCivic facilities.
“I don’t believe these conditions are unique to Trousdale,” says Nixon. “I came here to beg you to bring an end to the violence and deliberate indifference of this company.”
Last month’s audit conducted by the State Comptroller called out the private facility where Nixon was employed. That led lawmakers to take the step of delaying reauthorization for the state agency.
Though the head of the TDOC, Commissioner Tony Parker, insists that subsequent inspection of the facilities has shown marked improvement, some lawmakers berated him for failing to levy financial penalties against CoreCivic for the violations outlined in the audit.
Parker confirmed that CoreCivic was asked to pay a $43,000 fine this summer, for two separate violations regarding prison counts, and that there is no plan to seek monetary damages for the staffing violations.
And though the bipartisan committee still has questions, in the end they admitted that re- authorization couldn’t be avoided.
Springfield Senator Kerry Roberts explained, “If we had voted no to sunset the department of corrections, what do we do then? You simply put yourself in a position where all your prisons would be privatized. So the vote today is really not about CoreCivic, it’s not about whether we agree or disagree with what they’re doing. It’s at this point that the work begins.”
At least one lawmaker promised to draft legislation addressing prison privatization in Tennessee.
Department of Correction officials have also pledged to levy fines against CoreCivic if they continue failing to meet guidelines stipulated in the contract with the state.