Nashville, TN – The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of people who are incarcerated, announced today that the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) is covering-up and misclassifying violent incidents in an apparent attempt to conceal rising levels of institutional violence in state prisons.
In September 2012, HRDC released data compiled from public records requests that revealed violent incidents in state prisons had increased approximately 20% during the first 18 months of TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofields tenure, from January 2011 through June 2012, compared with the year before he was appointed by Governor Haslam. Such incidents included prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and institutional disturbances; of particular concern was an apparent increase in assaults on staff members.
The increased violence coincided with a number of policy changes implemented by Schofield that were widely perceived as being punitive and militaristic including requiring prisoners to walk in a single-file line under staff escort, a specified distance apart, in silence, with their hands out of their pockets (even in cold weather); daily cell inspections during which prisoners must stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected; stricter property rules; and standing or sitting counts held at 5:00 to 6:00am.
Following a September 18, 2012 HRDC press release on increasing levels of violence within TDOC facilities, HRDC began receiving letters from both prisoners and prison staff indicating that the TDOC was covering-up violent incidents by either not issuing disciplinary write-ups to prisoners who engaged in violence, or issuing write-ups for non-violent offenses.
Specifically, HRDC was contacted by several prisoners and TDOC employees regarding an incident that occurred at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) on October 9, 2012. That incident reportedly involved multiple prisoners who assaulted prison staff, including the facilitys warden, Jerry Lester, during a morning cell inspection. Shortly afterwards all Tennessee prisons were placed on temporary lockdown statewide.
According to documents produced by the TDOC pursuant to a public records request, multiple WTSP prisoners had approached staff members, including Assistant Warden (AWO) Robert Henry, in a threatening manner as to cause injury. Staff responded by spraying them with pepper spray; at least three prison employees were hit with pepper spray during the brawl. The prisoners were identified as gang members and one report stated they acted in concert … in their assault on staff. Another report noted that one prisoner had pushed AWO Henry in the chest area, while a separate document stated a fight broke out during the morning inspection.
Although multiple sources indicated that Warden Lester was involved and had suffered injuries, none of the records produced by the TDOC stated that he was present, nor did he file an incident report himself. The TDOC refused to produce video footage of the WTSP incident pursuant to a public records request. All nine prisoners implicated in the October 9 incident were transferred to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI).
However, those prisoners were not charged with violent disciplinary offenses; instead, they all received write-ups for participation in Security Threat Group (STG) activity which, according to TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter, is considered a non-violent disciplinary charge.
Therefore, although there was an incident involving nine prisoners that resulted in an assault on staff and a fight, with the prisoners being pepper sprayed and later transferred to a maximum security facility and placed in segregation, they were not charged with assault, fighting or other violent disciplinary offenses.
This appears to validate other reports received by HRDC that prison officials are downgrading or misclassifying violent incidents so that data entered on TOMIS the TDOCs internal computer system which tracks prison-related information does not reflect increasing levels of violence under Commissioner Schofields tenure.
According to a TDOC employee who contacted HRDC on February 19, 2013 but did not want to be identified due to fear of retaliation, In order to make it appear that assaults on staff and inmates are not increasing, Commissioner Schofield … has ordered wardens to reduce the number of incidents reported on TOMIS by changing the code of how an incident is documented. For example, a report filed on TOMIS documenting an assault on staff will still report an assault on a staff member within the body of the report; however, the incident will not be coded as an assault on staff thereby cleansing the data so that assaults appear to be down or steady rather than increasing as they actually are.
The answer to rising levels of violence particularly violence against staff members is not to cover-up the reporting of such incidents, stated HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann, who served time in Tennessees prison system in the 1990s. Rather, the answer is to ascertain the underlying causes of the violence and develop solutions accordingly.
Meanwhile, violent incidents continue to occur. According to a January 16, 2013 memo from Warden Michael Donahue at the Hardeman County Correctional Facility (HCCF), which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America, Over the past few days we have had some incidents at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable. Last week, one of my staff was assaulted in the chow hall for no reason…. In addition on Tuesday, January 15, 2013, we had two separate incidents of gang fight activities in the hallway and chow hall.
As a result, the facility was placed on lockdown. The lockdown was lifted a week later but the prison was again put on lockdown status on January 28, 2013 due to ongoing conflicts with gang activity and violence against staff at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable, according to a memo from HCCF Acting Warden Terrence Dickerson. The second lockdown extended into February.
Since the Tennessee legislature dissolved the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections in June 2011 there has been no direct oversight over the state prison system, except through the Governors office and the standing legislative Judiciary Committees which, despite being informed about increasing violence in TDOC facilities, have taken no apparent action.
An article concerning the TDOCs cover-up and misclassification of violent incidents in state prisons will appear in the March 2013 issue of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center.