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WHO IS LYING, AND WHO IS TELLING THE TRUTH? WHAT IS “GOOD JOURNALISM?”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 24, 2016) — On Monday, The Post & Email spoke with Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) spokeswoman Neysa Taylor about the myriad reports from inmates and their relatives describing an understaffed, gang-operated environment at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center (TTCC) in Hartsville, TN, a new medium-security prison owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Taylor’s immediate reaction was to say that the reports this publication has received over the last four months regarding 23-hour lockdowns, gang members roaming freely throughout the prison to intimidate and steal from other inmates, and lack of medical care are “inaccurate” and “erroneous.”
We were initially seeking to speak with TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker, but our call was rerouted to Taylor, who we have contacted before via email regarding our concerns about the conditions at various Tennessee prisons.
Channel 4 (WSMV) in Nashville, NBC News, and the Associated Press have made public expunged assault reports, prison gang activity, unexplained solitary confinement, the smuggling-in of contraband involving correction officers, and a hostile work environment in which wardens were intimidated into remaining silent. On June 9, NBC reported:
Violence against officers brushed under the rug. Widespread resignations and dangerous understaffing. Exhausted officers overseeing chaotic prisons. Outsourcing to a poorly-staffed private facility. Those are the stories told by a chorus of voices that rarely speak as one — current and former staff as well as prisoners, families and advocates.
On December 30, Channel 4 published a documentary on Tennessee’s “prison system” whose introduction reads, in part:
Video, photographs and internal documents never intended to be made public put a state agency under intense scrutiny.
Two years of stories alarmed lawmakers, infuriated the public and exposed what some call a system of secrets…
In this documentary, you’ll see how our investigations prompted five legislative hearings, an independent audit, dozens of disciplinary actions on inmates and a criminal conviction.
WSMV’s reports from a former prison cadet instructor that gang members were were recruited and trained to work in the state’s prisons were denied by Taylor, who called them “inaccurate.”
Although the Hartsville facility is privately-run, Taylor said that “TDOC staff” are “on-site quite frequently, as in weekly, so I believe the information you have received is erroneous.”
We responded that since the TDOC will not take action on safety and medical complaints, we would proceed by attempting to gain the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which we contacted earlier on Monday via telephone and its website contact form.
Taylor suggested that The Post & Email send her the documentation in our possession about the conditions at TTCC, which we declined to do since documentation has already been sent on many other occasions on similar issues without response. At that point she said, “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
The Post & Email observes that if the reports are deemed “inaccurate” at the outset, there is no need for us to send documentation of the allegations.
After we mentioned the report of a TTCC inmate who died from his throat being slashed at the beginning of August, Taylor responded, “We get reports of every incident that happens at Trousdale Turner. There’s nothing that goes on there that’s sinister, that is an elevated risk for anyone. We do have a very close relationship and a very close oversight of things that are going on there. I’m sorry that you’re receiving all of these reports, but unfortunately, the truth is very different. We have staff that are on-site there frequently, weekly, almost daily. There’s an on-site monitor who’s on-site there daily.”
Since CCA’s spokesman, Jonathan Burns, will not respond to our emails, we cannot verify Taylor’s claims. Many inmates have told us, however, that private security guards are now functioning as correction officers because of the severe staffing shortage.
Both employees at the State of Tennessee and CCA are regular readers of the articles at this publication covering TTCC and other Tennessee prisons. We stated to Taylor that after hundreds and perhaps thousands of published articles on the topic, it would seem that if anything we have published is “inaccurate,” we would have been contacted by the TDOC or other officials demanding retractions, corrections, or threatening legal action.
“I worked in news for 15 years, and I will say that lack of a lawsuit is not evidence of good journalism,” she said. “I understand that; I stand by what I’ve published,” The Post & Email responded.
“Why do you think inmates and their relatives would make up these stories?” we asked Taylor, to which she replied, “I get reports from inmates and families from across the state on a regular basis, and I will say 90% of the stories that I’ve had inmates tell their families have been erroneous. And when we tell their families, ‘Hey, that’s not it; this is what’s really going on; this is what your relative has been doing inside of prison, hence the response and why they’re having things taken away and things of that nature, they really do understand it. They really do.”
The Post & Email stated that many relatives have shared their observations when visiting. We also mentioned communications received from Bridget Thweatt regarding her husband James, who is currently housed at SCCF, another CCA facility, and reportedly facing “retaliation” in the form of six months without visitation, and WTSP inmate John McCloud, who described a savage beating at the hands of corrections staff during which he reportedly lost consciousness.
Taylor said that TDOC “encourages” relatives or friends of inmates to call, email or write to the department to report “anything that they think is a threat to the security of an institution. We’re very open,” she said.
Relatives have shared with The Post & Email that they fear retaliation against their incarcerated family member(s) if they were to provide their name to the TDOC when voicing a complaint.
“I am told that Trousdale is the most dangerous prison in Tennessee and that the gang members run it and threaten everyone,” we reiterated to Taylor.
We concluded the call by asking Taylor if we had her permission to publish her responses to us, to which she said, “Feel free.”
On Monday evening, The Post & Email sent the following message to Taylor:
You are likely aware of NBC News’s coverage:
In May, the AP published this report on TTCC:
If Mr. Howerton cited TTCC for institutional failings in mid-March, do you maintain that those have been rectified or did not exist?
I also direct you to articles I have published containing some of the documentation I told you I possess.
My log shows that this story has been read quite frequently by State of Tennessee employees:
Thank you very much.
Sharon Rondeau, Editor
The Post & Email
P.O. Box 113
Canterbury, CT 06331-0113
We have received no response as of press time on Wednesday at 8:41 a.m. EDT.