Officials with the Tennessee Department of Correction want the state to increase funding for prisons by $80 million, even as the governor is asking all state agencies to prepare 5 percent cuts.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he doesn’t expect to have to make those kinds of cuts in each department’s budget, but it’s too soon to tell.
“We’re going to have a huge list of requests and priorities, and we’ll start that winnowing-out process,” the governor told reporters after a day of budget hearings at the Capitol Building. “Right now, closing a prison would be a very drastic decision.”
The Department of Correction, which oversees 14 prisons on a total budget of just over $700 million, is one of many departments asking for spending bumps this year as Haslam prepares a state government budget expected to be in the neighborhood of $30 billion.
However, administration officials say they are facing a $400 million budget gap to compensate for increasing state government costs that exceed the state’s revenue growth.
A 5 percent budget cut in the Correction Department would mean slicing $31 million from the $691 million state corrections budget, reducing the inmate-housing capacity by as much as 1,352 prisoners and shedding 329 employees, Commissioner Derrick Schofield said.
The department’s spending plan now totals $709 million, which includes federal funds.
“To reduce the budget that much is about people going home, I mean closing prisons,” he said, adding his department hasn’t identified which prisons’ populations would be shifted.
The $80 million, or 11.5 percent, increase would mainly pave the way to open more beds for additional inmates due to the opening of the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, according to agency documents.
The day before the department’s budget hearing, protesters with Occupy Nashville demonstrated outside the headquarters of a private Tennessee prison operator, saying the Corrections Corporation of America represents another example of corporate greed and essentially buys prisoners for profit.
“This is another example of what we’re talking about, corporate greed and politicians being bought by the corporations,” said Occupy protester Ron White told Nashville News Channel 5 Monday.
“It’s one of the ways the state is addressing our need to house inmates, and it’s doing it at a lower cost to citizens. I would think most people would think that’s a good thing,” Haslam said when asked to respond to the protesters’ comments. “I’m not sure that CCA is making the decision to send more people to prisons.”