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VOL. 132 | NO. 247 | Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tennessee Prisons Chief Vows More Private Prison Accountability

By JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee's corrections chief says his department didn't fine the nation's largest private prison operator for staffing shortages later identified in an audit because the company seemed to be trying hard to fill vacancies.

Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker told reporters Tuesday there would be a "different intensity of accountability going forward," including fines if CoreCivic breaches its contracts.

Parker addressed a legislative panel Tuesday about a comptroller's audit that mainly focused on Trousdale Turner Correctional Center's staffing woes, including a shortage of correctional officers. The audit last month also said much of the staffing information needed to monitor what's happening behind bars is riddled with errors or hadn't been shared with the state.

The panel voted to reauthorize the Department of Correction for a year Tuesday, a run-of-the-mill procedure that lawmakers delayed for a month so they could dive further into the audit of Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America.

"We may not have taken action when we should have in some cases," Parker told reporters. "But again, going forward, it's clear that they have a contractual obligation to follow, and the department is committed to making sure they meet those obligations."

The state has fined Trousdale, but not for the staffing shortcomings. Parker said a $43,750 penalty against Trousdale in May over problems counting inmates shows that if a prison doesn't have good count procedures, it could create an immediate security threat.

Even so, some lawmakers considered the level of that fine minuscule, given the hundreds of millions of dollars tied into CoreCivic's contracts in Tennessee.

Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, said if CoreCivic breaches its contract, the state should "throw the book at them."

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, agreed.

"$43,000 is not even a parking ticket to these folks," Mitchell said. "You're not going to get their attention with $43,000."

Trousdale's Warden, Rusty Washburn, gave lawmakers some explanations for the short staffing.

He said low unemployment in Trousdale County and lack of housing make it tough to recruit workers. He also noted that CoreCivic has begun offering pay increases, bonuses and other new recruitment incentives at the nearly two-year-old rural prison with 2,461 male inmates.

The audit says 44 critical job posts at Trousdale were unstaffed on three different days in three months. Still more unfilled critical posts might have been found, the audit states, if Trousdale had turned over more than only about half of the signed staffing rosters requested by the state.

Washburn said those unfinished documents included initial staff assignments, but just weren't updated to show that people were ultimately stationed where they assigned or are moved elsewhere due to an emergency, for example.

Washburn said 90 percent of the missing, filled-out reports have since been sent to the state.

Additionally, he said some posts that were deemed critical did not need to filled around the clock, and those workers could be moved elsewhere throughout the day. The prison has better identified which ones always need to be staffed, he said.

More than a half-dozen former Trousdale inmates and families, workers and others who spoke Tuesday weren't satisfied with the explanations by CoreCivic and the state. They told lawmakers that the facility was dangerous for inmates and officers, sharing a variety of stories.

Ashley Dixon, a former correctional officer at Trousdale, said she witnessed two deaths: a 25-year-old diabetic inmate who was in pain for days and sometimes wasn't getting his shots, despite Dixon's pleas to nurses; and a man swallowed 100 blood pressure pills in an attempted suicide, but wasn't given charcoal to make him throw them up.

"At CoreCivic, there's a pervasive culture of concealing the truth to protect the company," Dixon said.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company is looking into Dixon's allegations.

"It would be premature to comment until we've had an opportunity to review these issues," Burns said.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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