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DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION COMMISSIONER COMES UNDER CLOSER SCRUTINY

by Sharon Rondeau

TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield has occupied his position since 2011, having served in the state of Georgia as Assistant Commissioner and Chief of Staff for the Department of Corrections there.

(Oct. 31, 2015) — In an editorial written by a staff reporter for The Tennesseean dated October 25, 2015, Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Commissioner Derrick Schofield is encouraged to resign his post amid allegations of mismanagement, placing prison guards at risk, and misreporting assaults.

“The issues involving lack of safety, transparency and poor financial practices call into question the competence of the leadership at the Tennessee Department of Correction,” reporter David Plazas wrote.

Several months ago, Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) inmate Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III predicted that Schofield would soon be gone, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

Since shortly after Fitzpatrick’s incarceration in August of last year, The Post & Email has been receiving a regular stream of letters from inmates at several TDOC facilities which have described in graphic detail assaults on inmates, staff, and indiscretions between prison employees and inmates observed first-hand.

A former prison warden claimed in April of last year that the TDOC was “hiding records of assault”  The same individual spoke at a legislative hearing this past summer along with several correction officers who took a day off to seek redress with elected representatives.  The same retired warden continues to express his concerns regarding Schofield’s decision to “reclassify maximum-security prisoners and integrate them with the medium-security population as a cost-saving measure.”

One inmate letter received by The Post & Email in July described his having been beaten by gang members last year.  NWCX was placed on complete “lockdown” after a July 24, 2015 fight among rival gang members which caused eight to be hospitalized, to which Plazas appeared to refer in last week’s editorial.

The same inmate later enclosed what appeared to be proof that assaults among the gang members during the altercation were reported as “illness” when those injured were airlifted and otherwise rushed to area hospitals.

Several weeks ago, Fitzpatrick described the death of a 21-year-old inmate placed in the “Youth Offender” section at NWCX who complained of a medical ailment several times, was reportedly denied treatment, and died in custody.

The Post & Email has heard from several inmates who claim that their serious medical conditions have gone untreated or have been inadequately treated.

What could have been a horrendous death possibly involving torture of inmate Elbert Thornton was classified by the TDOC as having occurred from “natural causes.”

In two letters received last week, both an unnamed inmate and Fitzpatrick reported that CCO Lori Avery, who had been fired once before but rehired, was discharged from employment for egregious misbehavior involving an inmate. Avery had been the assistant to the NWCX “school” where inmates, whether or not they need it, are enrolled in Adult Basic Education (ABE) and other classes.

In late June, Avery informed Fitzpatrick that proof of his high school graduation had been dispatched to the appropriate institution, albeit without his signature granting permission for the record to be released.  Fitzpatrick has reported that inmates are routinely enrolled in courses, including ABE and the Pro-social Life Skills (PSLS) program, who are eligible for an exemption, have already taken the classes, or who do not meet the criteria for enrollment. In June, Fitzpatrick informed us that each inmate enrolled in PSLS garners up to $3000 from the federal government to the prison.

A mainstream media outlet contacted by The Post & Email and to whom we supplied thorough documentation did not pursue the prisoners-for-profit story involving forced participation in classes despite expressing a high level of interest at the outset.

Schofield and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam have defended Schofield’s decision to change the way in which correction officers accrue overtime in August of last year, a change considered responsible for the departure of more than 300 correction officers across the state since that time.

And last month, an audit conducted by the American Correctional Association (ACA) resulted in the suggestions that assaults be classified differently and that correction officers’ overtime pay situation be reviewed but also that staffing levels were “adequate” at five prisons out of a total of 14 visited by the team.

On October 29, The Tennessean’s Frank Daniels III reported that “The governor is consistent in how he deals with these firestorms of criticism, pushing back hard when the folks he brought into his administration are criticized.”

On Thursday, Democrat Tennessee Rep. Mike Stewart criticized Haslam for defending Schofield.  “The governor needs to come in and conduct an independent investigation not including Commissioner Schofield,” Stewart was quoted as having said.  Haslam is serving his second term as governor and is a Republican.

Haslam has not responded to longstanding and repeated reports of judicial, prosecutorial, and other forms of public corruption since he took office in 2011.

Tennessee was rated the third most corrupt state in the nation by a joint study of the University of Indiana and the University of Hong Kong last year.