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by Sharon Rondeau

Warden Mike Parris oversees the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, TN, near the Missouri border

(Aug. 1, 2015) — On July 25, a brief article in The Chattanoogan related an incident involving a reported eight inmates, all members of dangerous gangs, at the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) in Tiptonville, TN the day before.

In response to the incident, The Post & Email has received a letter from NWCX inmate Bryant K. Lewis containing further details on not only the July 24 occurrence, but also the overall poor working conditions for Tennessee state corrections officers.

NWCX is located in Lake County, TN and has housed some of the most violent inmates in the state’s history.

Enclosed with Lewis’s letter was a copy of a June 15, 2015 letter addressed to Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Commissioner Derrick Schofield.  Lewis stated that out of several letters written to Schofield, he received a response to one.

At the time of his June 15 letter to Schofield, Lewis stated that he had four months remaining until his anticipated eligibility for release from prison.

Frequent violence among imprisoned gang members has been detailed in several recent inmate letters to The Post & Email.  According to one inmate, gangs run NWCX, not the warden and staff.

On July 29, The Lake County Banner published a detailed article which appears to support Lewis’s report of the July 24 incident.  The paper reported that a larger publication, The Tennessean, “has been contacted by several correctional employees who expressed growing concerns about their safety due to the shortage of staffing.”

The Tennessean has reported extensively on the stressful conditions within the state’s prisons, particularly for corrections officers.  A state legislator was quoted as having said of the situation that “People’s lives are in danger.”  On Monday, The Tennessean reported that a similar incident to that of July 24 occurred at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on the same day but appeared to have been “contradicted” by a TDOC press release.

According to The Tennessean on July 26, 2015:

While correctional officers have been forced to work longer hours to qualify for overtime, the number of executives within the Tennessee Department of Correction has grown and their salaries have swelled under the leadership of Commissioner Derrick Schofield.

The new positions include a chief of staff making $125,352 a year and two additional deputy commissioners making $129,900 a year. Those deputy commissioners each earn $26,460 more annually than the salary of the one deputy commissioner on the payroll in 2010. Schofield, who became commissioner in 2011, has an annual salary of $158,556.

Currently, 16 employees within the agency make $96,000 or more a year compared with four earning that or more in 2010.

Writer Tom Wilemon explained that in order to save $1.4 million in its budget, last summer the state of Tennessee placed corrections officers on a “28-day schedule” without overtime instead of a 40-hour work week, after which many officers resigned.

Corrections officers have been assaulted, with one reportedly losing an eye after a violent onslaught by inmates.

A new Tennessee prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is under construction at a reported cost of $277 million.  CCA is based in Nashville.

In 2013, the company admitted to having falsified documentation relating to staffing at its facility in Idaho, over which it faced a criminal investigation ordered by that state’s governor early last year.

In an editorial published on Saturday at The Tennessean, staff writer David Plazas wrote:

Things are going awry at Tennessee’s system of corrections from the view outside the prison walls.

Meanwhile, inside the state prisons, guards are quitting over reduced pay, rival gangs of prisoners are getting into bloody fights, and one inmate escaped…

The public’s safety and public trust are at risk, and the state must make addressing these issues a top priority.

In 2012, WSMV, Channel 4 in Nashville, reportedthat following Schofield’s appointment as TDOC commissioner:

Prison violence in Tennessee is skyrocketing, and watchdog groups say a rise in violence since a new commissioner took over is alarming.

They say new Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield has turned the prison system into a military operation and it’s backfiring…

The Department of Correction said violence is flat, citing an October 2011 report, but the watchdog groups say that report is outdated and the new numbers clearly show a new rise.

Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III, an inmate at NWCX since December, has also described the plight of corrections officers at the facility as highly volatile and demoralizing.  In two letters, Fitzpatrick stated that corrections officers might be contacting us to relate the danger they face on a daily basis; to date, however, we have not received any communications from them.

Channel 4’s Jeremy Finley has investigated and reported on instances of staff-on-inmate assault, examples of the TDOC’s failure to document prison assaults, and inmates with apparent access to Facebook and other prohibited activity, including the consumption of illegal drugs.

In the fall of 2009, Fitzpatrick began to expose a “prisoners-for-profit” operation conducted by the county criminal courts working with law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, and even private attorneys.  The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has refused to examine citizen reports of wrongdoing on the part of the aforementioned public officials, claiming that the District Attorney General must initiate a complaint against a judge or fellow prosecutor.

On one occasion, Fitzpatrick asked TBI Agent Cathy Pendleton what could be done if the alleged perpetrator of much of the corruption within the judicial district was, in fact, the District Attorney General, an allegation reported in a six-day series at The Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2012.

Because Tennessee grand juries are populated by a judicially-selected foreman and often contain jurors serving in violation of state law, the outcome of the grand jury deliberations is predetermined in an unknown number of cases.  The District Attorneys General are aware that the judges are hand-picking the grand jury foremen, employing them for years and sometimes decades.

In Monroe County in 2011, Fitzpatrick personally observed a man tried and convicted for murder without law enforcement having conducted any forensic examination. In another trial which Fitzpatrick had attempted to attend but was unceremoniously ordered out of the courtroom by Judge Carroll Lee Ross, George Joseph Raudenbush III was convicted on eight vehicular-related counts after a grand jury issued true bills on seven counts. Raudenbush was was also denied his constitutional right to defense counsel. After more than two years in state prison, the verdict was reversed and remanded, with Raudenbush again convicted last November but without jail time.

The Tennessee General Assembly has not been willing to address the judicially-selected, long-serving grand jury foremen nor the conduct of the judges who appoint them.

Fitzpatrick and other inmates have recently identified a second prisoners-for-profit organization within NWCX in which inmates are forced to take part in the Pro-Social Life Skills course and other classes apparently so that the federal government will reward the facility with up to $3,000 for each participant.  On June 19, Fitzpatrick wrote a detailed and agitated letter describing a threatened assault on his person by Pro-Social Life Skills instructor Terry Hopper resulting from Fitzpatrick’s refusal to participate in the course out of his concern for self-incrimination.

In a joint study completed by the University of Hong Kong and the University of Indiana last year, the state of Tennessee was ranked third-highest in government corruption.

Mr. Lewis’s letter and enclosure follow in their entirety.

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