WILL PRISON CONDITIONS IMPROVE OR WORSEN WITH SCHOFIELD’S IMMINENT DEPARTURE?
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 9, 2016) — In a lengthy and detailed report published on Thursday by NBC News in its “U.S. News” section, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was quoted in his praise of Department of Correction head Derrick Schofield, who tendered his resignation last week and will work his last day on June 20.
“Tennessee has been extremely fortunate to have someone of Derrick’s caliber as commissioner of the Department of Correction,” Haslam said. “I am personally grateful for Derrick’s professional approach and personal integrity as he worked to reduce recidivism, improve offender outcomes and assure a safe and secure environment in our corrections system,” Haslam wrote on his website on June 1, a statement quoted by NBC.
Schofield, who previously worked as an assistant commissioner at the Georgia Department of Correction, was appointed to his post as TDOC Commissioner in January 2011 and oversaw a number of changes expected to save money and operate the state prison system more efficiently. However, persistent and systemic problems remain, and, according to many, have worsened during Schofield’s tenure.
As The Post & Email and other outlets have been reporting, the state’s prisons are rife with gang violence, injuries to both inmates and correction officers, use of excessive force against inmates, and understaffing, particularly after Schofield changed the way in which overtime pay was accrued by correction officers in August 2014.
Last summer, following legislative subcommittee hearings during which current and former prison employees testified to their dissatisfaction and the dangerous conditions caused by short-staffing, Schofield was resolute regarding the changes he had ordered even as a mass exodus of correction officers continued throughout the state.
In its comprehensive piece, NBC reported systemic violence at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) and Trousdale Turner Correctional Complex (TTCC), in particular, including long lockdown periods and a failure to document violent events.
For the last three weeks, since The Post & Email became aware of the substandard conditions at TTCC, it has received more than a dozen letters from inmates now residing there recounting an inability to shower regularly; a lack of employment opportunities; irregular dispensing of medications and diabetics leaving the facility “on stretchers” from a lack of insulin; severe understaffing, poor quality food, and solitary confinement without provocation.
NBC quoted Haslam as standing by Schofield even as he prepares to make his departure to become an officer at The GEO Group, a global prison initiative which is the second-largest private prison company in the United States.
TTCC is run by the private corporation Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is the largest private prison contractor in the country, operating 70 facilities across the country.
NBC’s report includes quotes from Bridget Thweatt, whose husband, James, spent time at TTCC but was moved to another prison approximately two weeks ago. James was quoted by his wife as having said that the state-run prison in which he was housed prior to being moved to TTCC was “a walk in the park.”
Earlier on Thursday, Ms. Thweatt told The Post & Email, “I thought they did a good job on the article.”
We have been told that the TDOC orchestrated the transfer of inmates from state-operated prisons to the Trousdale facility beginning January 6 despite being ill-prepared to care for them with its low staffing levels. In addition to the medical deficiencies in enumerated above, nine inmate deaths have also been reported by this publication only.
On Thursday evening, a relative of an inmate at TTCC reported that her loved one was physically threatened and that she has been unable to obtain information as to his safety despite spending hours on the phone with staffers and on hold. She left a message for TDOC Correctional Administrator Tony Howerton, who in March documented enough deficiencies at the institution to cause it to stop taking new prisoners.
In keeping with the many inmate and visitor reports The Post & Email has received, NBC reported, “Two employees said basic operations like counting inmates and feeding meals took hours because staffers were poorly prepared, and overwhelmed by the buses of 150 prisoners who arrived each week as the prison came online. Men would be locked down so long they missed scheduled administration of heart pills and diabetic insulin, said former employees and family.”
Despite the persistent problems and dangerous circumstances, CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns, who declined to answer The Post & Email’s questions last month, reportedly told NBC that “We take the recruitment and hiring of qualified professionals very seriously, and the facility is currently staffed at safe and appropriate levels.”
Many prison inmates suffer from untreated mental illness and other ailments not readily manageable in a prison setting.
Of his tenure as commissioner, Schofield told NBC that “there is nothing I would have done differently.”
As The Post & Email has reported, Tennessee is one of the worst states for public corruption, occupying either first or third place, depending on the survey. Methamphetamine production and sales are a significant problem in the state, as is the judicially-commandeered grand juries, intended by the Fifth Amendment to act as a buffer between government prosecutors and citizens.
Sharon Rondeau has operated The Post & Email since April 2010, focusing on the Obama birth certificate investigation and other government corruption news. She has reported prolifically on constitutional violations within Tennessee’s prison and judicial systems.