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Gov. Lee must get handle on Tennessee prisons

Johnson City Press • Feb 20, 2020 at 2:00 AM

CoreCivic, the nation's largest and oldest for-profit private prison corporation, was born in Tennessee as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) when it won a contract to take over a jail and juvenile detention center in 1984. It's long past time the state waved goodbye.

Four years ago after an inspector general report found substandard living conditions, inadequate medical care and high rates of violence at state prisons, CCA rebranded itself as CoreCivic. It didn't help, at least in Tennessee.

Last summer the Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective reported that from 2014 through June 2019 there were twice as many murders in the four Tennessee prisons operated by CoreCivic than in the 10 prisons run by the Tennessee Department of Correction. That’s despite the fact that TDOC facilities held on average 70 percent of the state's prison population, including prisoners with higher security levels.

CoreCivic operates the Whiteville Correctional Facility, South Central Correctional Facility, Hardeman County Correctional Facility and Trousdale-Turner Correctional Center. The latter opened in 2016 amid turmoil. Set to eventually become the largest prison in the state, Trousdale abruptly stopped accepting inmates due to inadequate staffing, solitary confinement issues and claims of excessive force. TDOC fined CoreCivic more than $2 million for contract violations at Trousdale.

Last year Gov. Bill Lee expressed his concern. “I have an interest for certain to make sure that the services are being delivered by CoreCivic to the highest level. And if they’re not, then we certainly will take steps to correct that.”

Well, they're not. A scathing state audit has just found that the CoreCivic prisons are still running at minimal staffing levels and nearly 200 inmates have died in state custody since 2017. That includes 12 documented suicides.

Over the course of the last two years the audit also found that TDOC leadership failed to provide adequate oversight of correctional facilities which resulted in a failure to operate "safe and secure prisons." In many cases CoreCivic officials were also blasted for not properly reporting vital data related to inmate deaths, inmate assaults, correction officers’ use of force and facility lockdowns.

Prisoners in CoreCivic-run prisons owned by the state have come forward saying incidents of sexual assault were either ignored or not dealt with appropriately. An entire section of the audit is related to procedures that apparently aren't being followed when it comes to investigating sexual abuse and harassment allegations, finding that many inmates do not report being sexually assaulted "out of fear of retaliation or shame, or because they do not believe that complaints of sexual abuse will result in any changes."

What this audit didn't reveal, but what state attorneys general have, is that there are hundreds of inmates in Tennessee prisons who have Facebook pages, including murderers who post comments and photos that families of their victims may run across. And among those photos are pictures of parties that are conducted in state prisons at taxpayer expense, one nearly every month, all going on under the administration of Correction Commissioner Tony C. Parker.

Parker was appointed in June 2016 by former Gov. Bill Haslam and reappointed in January 2019 by Governor Lee. That's an appointment the governor should reconsider.

Governor Lee should also take steps to end contracts with CoreCivic and investigate conditions inside state prisons including how inmates are getting access to social media.

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