The director of Tennessee’s prison-management agency is suggesting that closing a medium security correctional complex in Nashville makes sense on a number of levels.
Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said recently that shuttering the 765-bed Charles B. Bass facility would save money and enhance agency operations in other areas. Schofield said that even if his department doesn’t have to slash its operations by 7 percent, as Gov. Bill Haslam has said the state departments and agencies should prepare for, closing that particular inmate-housing location makes long-range sense and is part of the agency’s strategic plan.
“We planned and talked about this internally for the last couple of years in terms of how do we manage beds, how do we get those annex beds filled, because when you have open beds it’s like throwing money out of the window,” Schofield said.
While the Bass facility now holds around 650 prisoners — many of whom are considered low security risks — there are about 300-400 open slots for incarcerating inmates who don’t pose significant threats of escape or harm to others, Schofield said. Those open beds are less secure and not appropriate for more serious or violent offenders, he added.
Likewise, Schofield said, the Bass Complex employees would be used to fill employment vacancies in other facilities throughout the Davidson County area at a lower cost. He explained running the Bass facility is more “staff intensive,” costing the department $92 a day per prisoner, while the average cost at other facilities is only $74 a day.
According to a press release, shutting the Nashville facility would provide a total $16.4 million in savings. Schofield proposed a June 30, 2015 closure deadline.
Additionally, Schofield proposed cutting 233 positions by filling facility vacancies with personnel from the Bass facility.
The Tennessee State Employee Association has expressed concern about the proposed closure. TSEA President Bryan Merritt told the Times Free Press last week the proposal concerns them because the state’s prisons are already over-crowded and short-staffed, and the reductions could compromise employee and public safety. Merritt added that if the closure is “simply a justification for privatizing state services,” the organization is “adamantly opposed to it.”
Schofield has asserted the facility’s closing isn’t connected to an $11.1 million prisoner housing expenditure to Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville-based private prison company, listed among their cost increases.
In July, the Trousdale County Commission signed a contract with TDoC to become a “contracted facilitator of prison inmates.” The county then signed a contract with CCA to give them full responsibility and liability for operating the $140 million, 2,552-bed medium security facility they were constructing in the county.
That payment is for new beds to help reduce the number of state prisoners held at the local level, Schofield said. As such, that increase will be offset with existing unspent funds from the State Prosecutions account, used to pay county prisons for holding state inmates.
In fiscal years 2011 and 2012 TDoC went over its state prosecutions budget, but in 2013 the agency’s new prison population projections were accurate within 1 percent and have continued to stay under projections, Schofield said.
The agency has an almost 4,500-strong population back-up at the local level, Schofield said, and added a primary focus of the department is ensuring the right offenders are in the right beds at the right facilities. TDoC determines offender placement by a variety of factors, such as the nature of the crime, prisoner characteristics and needs, gang associations and length of sentence, he said.
And while they’re incarcerating more violent offenders — including more gang members — better prison management has reduced the number of violent incidents since 2011 by 29 percent, Schofield said.
Wes Landers, TDoC’s chief financial officer, warned the governor’s finance team that while opening a new correctional facility can help flatten the growth trend of the incarceration rate in the short term, alternatives to prison need to be considered or that rate will continue to climb.
In addition to a growing prison population, the department — which also manages the state’s probation and parole services — has a fairly high turnover rate for prison guards: 29.6 percent system-wide. In exit interviews, those leaving state employment cite poor pay, job dissatisfaction and scheduling problems — including a lack of weekends off — as reasons for quitting, Schofield said.
The total proposed cost reduction is $20.5 million. The department also plans to save $1.4 million in overtime costs by switching from seven days to a 28-day work schedule, $1.4 million by building correctional officer overtime billing into capital projects and $2.4 million from restructuring State Prosecutions jail contract standards.
While the proposed increase totals $71.9 million, the department is offering offsets in existing funds to bring that cost ultimately down to $54.4 million, Schofield said. He added 80 percent of the department’s cost increases are statutorily mandated or related to replacing TOMIS.
Department cost increases include: $30.3 million for a new offender management system; $8.5 million to complete the federally mandated statewide radio replacement; $7.6 million for a salary survey; $6.5 million for a 5 percent retention salary differential; $2 million for operations; $2 million for programming; and $1.9 million for healthcare costs, including $1.7 million to raise state nurse salaries to a “marketable amount,” and $213,200 to hire a clinical pharmacist.
At $945 million, the state appropriation request makes up 98 percent of the $962.4 million budget proposal, Schofield said. Additional department funding comes from $17 million in other revenue, and $350,000 in federal dollars.
Schofield said the department has increased staff training and visibility, as well as initiated the use of cell phone detectors to deal with the problem of “hard contraband” in the prisons. TDoC has arrested 68 people over the past year for attempting to “introduce contraband” to state facilities, including some prison staff.
Schofield also updated Haslam on the progress of the governor’s Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force, which he heads. The group has broken down into its sub-groups, and those groups are beginning to meet and hold their discussions, but the bulk of the work will likely begin in January, he said.