by Sharon Rondeau

(Aug. 19, 2015) — Over the last several weeks, The Post & Email has received several letters from Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) inmate Bryant K. Lewis describing horrendous working conditions within the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) located in Tiptonville.

On July 24, NWCX was the scene of a large disturbance caused by rival gang members imprisoned at the facility, although a TDOC press release implied that external gang violence provoked it.

In earlier correspondence, Lewis questioned why gang members are not segregated from the general population consisting of inmates who are not considered dangerous.

The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal, Correctional News and WSMV in Nashville have all reported on the worsening conditions within the state prison system relative to corrections officer shortages believed to have been exacerbated by a change enacted last year in the way overtime pay is accrued.  In order to save money, the TDOC stopped paying overtime after a typical 40-hour work week, instead calculating overtime pay only after 171 hours were worked in a 28-day period.

Commissioner Derrick Schofield initiated the new rule without a vote of the Tennessee General Assembly.

According to an editorial published on August 12 at The Tennessean, “Since the department implemented the change in work schedule in August 2014, the number of job openings has increased by 50 percent to more than 300, and staff turnover is over 39 percent, up from less than 20 percent in 2010.”

At the end of July, Schofield agreed to lower the threshold at which overtime would be paid from 171 hours monthly to 160 hours.  However, until the 171-hour point is reached, additional pay is made at the regular hourly rate.

Lewis has written to Schofield on three occasions about the prison conditions with suggestions as to how to make improvements and reported receiving one response.

In his latest letter, received by The Post & Email on Tuesday, Lewis enclosed incident reports and a master list of all incidents reported as having occurred on July 24, 2015 after the gang eruption, many of which are labeled as “illness” rather than “assault” or some other term.

In April of last year, Jeremy Finley of WSMV reported that prison assaults between inmates and staff are often misreported or not reported at all.  On August 12, Finley stated in a broadcast that approximately ten corrections officers visited state legislators’ offices that day with documentation of their complaints about the new work schedule.  The Tennessean reported that the effort was dubbed “Occupy Corrections.”

On August 10, Schofield told a legislative committee meeting specially to address rising concerns about the TDOC’s prison operations that Tennessee prisons are “safe.”  In contrast, The Tennessean quoted a corrections officer as having said that “Schofield and others in the administration aren’t telling the truth about violence in the prisons and other problems.”

On August 12, Lewis wrote a letter to Judy Preston, Acting Chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, in Washington, DC with the subject line, “PRISON VIOLENCE OUT OF CONTROL.”

The first paragraph of the letter indicates that Preston had responded to a previous letter from Lewis about “the uncontrollable gang-violence here at the Northwest Correctional Complex located in Lake County Tennessee, at Tiptonville.” [sic]

On page 2 of his letter to Preston, Lewis mentioned that The Post & Email has reported, along with other media, on what he described as a “state of emergency due to a lack of staff and an uprising of prison violence.”

He concluded his letter with “Despite efforts to separate gang members from non-gang members prison officials continue to ignore the repeated beatings and stabbings.”

In the mailing, Lewis enclosed a letter dated August 13, 2015 addressed to The Post & Email whose subject line reads, “PRISON CORRUPTION/VIOLENCE BEING LOGGED IN AND ENTERED AS ILLNESSES.”  Lewis stated at the end of the letter that an NWCX inmate who escaped on July 29 and was captured later that day “was quoted saying ‘the prison is too violent inside for me.'”

In letters written earlier this year, inmate Walter Francis Fitzpatrick also described corrections officers’ poor working conditions and long hours and that he had provided The Post & Email’s contact information to several in the event they chose to come forward.

In his letter dated July 28 sent to The Post & Email, Lewis rhetorically asked TDOC officials, “Are you waiting for a mass killing?”

Editor’s Note:  In Lewis’s reference to “Governor Bredesen,” he most likely intended to write “Governor Haslam,” as Phil Bredesen has not been governor since Haslam‘s first election to the post in 2010.  Lewis has been incarcerated since 2002.

The individual incident reports of inmates sent to area hospitals following the July 24 gang violence sent by Lewis are as follows:

A summary of July 24, 2015 “incidents” was enclosed with Lewis’s letter:

A separate incident on August 12 referenced in Lewis’s August 13 letter is summarized as:

On Wednesday, ActionNews5 reported:

Two correctional officers were hospitalized after an attack Tuesday, but some lawmakers are accusing prison officials of downplaying the extent of the officers’ injuries…

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said there is a disconnect between what the Tennessee Department of Correction is releasing and what is happening inside the state’s prisons.

Stewart said Sgt. David Garrett was attacked by an inmate at the Morgan County Correctional Facility on Tuesday. An inmate allegedly stomped on his head with a boot, causing a broken orbital socket, broken nose and cracked thumb. Garrett also needed 12 stitches on his lip.

But according to TDOC’s press release on the incident, Garrett’s injuries were described as non-life-threatening.

The Post & Email has been reporting on corruption within Tennessee state government for the last six years.

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