Two things happened when the embattled head of the Tennessee Department of Correction announced his resignation last week: Gov. Bill Haslam praised him. Prisoners, families, advocates and many staff cautiously celebrated.
In an era when advocates across the political spectrum have called for reforming the nation’s prisons, Commissioner Derrick Schofield brought his own brand of change to Tennessee. He cut the number of people in long-term solitary confinement, implemented new security policies and changed staffing to trim costs. To the powers that be, the overhaul of the 20,000-prisoner system was a success.
“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,” said Gov. Bill Haslam in a statement last week.
A very different picture emerged from interviews with more than two-dozen staffers, prisoners, family members, and advocates, as well as internal reports and court documents reviewed by NBC News.
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.
“I want to know what kind of fantasy world [Haslam’s] living in,” said Jeannie Alexander, founder of the prisoner-rights group No Exceptions and a former prison chaplain. “This is not a safe, healthy, well-functioning prison system by any stretch of the imagination.”
In a brief interview with NBC News last week, Schofield said he was proud of the system he built. He’s leaving to become a vice president at the GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private corrections companies.
“I look back and there is nothing I would have done differently,” he told NBC News.
“Safe and Secure Prisons”
When the new prison boss arrived from Georgia in January 2011, he whittled the Tennessee Department of Correction’s mission down to a single phrase.
“Everything we do is about operating safe and secure prisons,” Schofield said in a promotional video that year.
He ushered in a new discipline that some described as a holdover from his army captain days. Cell inspections went from periodical to daily. Prisoners were required to stand at attention, neatly dressed and beds made. When they moved across prison grounds, prisoners were to walk silently and in lines, hands out of their pockets even in freezing weather, said prisoners and advocates. Not complying could mean a disciplinary write-up.
This was the first step toward a plan to tighten security behind bars.
“Inmates who walk in single file are less likely to commit violent acts,” a prison official explained in a 2012 state audit.
Officer training also became more rigid, said Andrew Lewis, a former deputy warden who retired in 2013 in good standing.
“The academy changed a learning environment to a military environment,” said Lewis.
He said Schofield’s policies worked against the intended outcome of keeping prisoners in line.
“The changes he made,” said Lewis, “made the inmates so much more difficult to supervise.”
Prisons around the country have to toe the line between maintaining order and straining relationships between staff and prisoners, said Jeffrey Schwartz, a corrections expert who has worked with facilities nationwide.
“In general, overly militaristic approaches generate tension and anger,” said Schwartz. “If the tone of the institution is negative and angry, that hostility sometimes comes out in assaults on staff.”
Assaults in Tennessee prisons began to rise, interviews and documents show. In March 2012, the Human Rights Defense Center, a Tennessee-based watchdog group, wrote Schofield a letter voicing concern about the “militaristic policy changes” it worried were “causing an increase in violence and misconduct among prisoners.”
“If some of the policy changes are intended to improve safety and security at TDOC facilities, they may be having the exact opposite effect,” wrote Alex Friedman of the Human Rights Defense Center.
Statistics from that period show an uptick in violence, particularly assaults on staff. In 2011, Schofield’s first year on the job, TDOC data show an average of 62 incidents per month, up from about 55 a month the two prior years.
Violent incidents have since dropped markedly. TDOC data show 1,002 violent incidents in fiscal year 2015, down from 1,763 four years earlier. TDOC said those numbers prove that prisons have grown safer under Schofield’s leadership.
“The statistics speak for themselves,” TDOC spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said in an email to NBC News. “There has been a reduction in offender assaults under Commissioner Schofield’s administration.”
But seven current and former staff interviewed by NBC News said they were encouraged to write up or re-classify assaults as non-violent incidents to keep the violence statistics down.
“More and more things got written up as ‘provocation’ because we were under a directive not to write inmates up for assault,” said Tyler Nelson, a correctional officer and outspoken critic of the department.
Records reviewed by NBC News show groping, hitting an officer with feces, and slapping an officer across the face – all offenses once considered assault -- were being categorized as “inmate/staff provocation” or “interference with officer duties,” categories not reported in publicly-released annual statistics. NBC affiliate WSMV-TV found some incident reports were deleted altogether.
In October 2012, former West Tennessee State Penitentiary Warden Jerry Lester was conducting a round of cell inspections. Tensions were high -- the unit had been on lockdown for weeks, Lester said. As he walked by one top-ranking gang member on the upper tier of the pod, the prisoner lunged at him. A video first obtained by WSMV shows the prisoner assaulting Lester, who was left with a broken arm and torn rotator cuff.
But TDOC documents provided to NBC News show the incident was categorized as “participation in a security threat group” -- gang activity -- a category also not considered violent in TDOC statistics. Documents from a riot at another prison show a similar incident was assigned to the same category, despite multiple prisoner injuries.
Lester, who had a long career in corrections, said he was told not to discuss the incident.
“I was a company man,” said Lester, whose appointment as warden was terminated in 2014. “I kept my mouth shut.”
Staff began to leak internal documents to the press and advocate for change alongside prisoners’ families, who said they feared for their loved ones’ safety.
“When you have staff and inmate families on the same side, you know you’ve got a problem,” said a prisoner’s wife, who asked her name be withheld for fear of retribution.
As a result, the definition of “assault” came under scrutiny last year from both the press and the legislature, which has held several hearings on issues at TDOC. After a review by external auditors, TDOC retooled the official assault definitions. Critics said the new definitions were an improvement, though the changes have made it difficult to track trends in violence. But one violence stat difficult to argue with – homicides -- has increased. Tennessee prisons have seen seven homicides since June 2012, as opposed to five during the five years prior.
Staff interviewed by NBC News said prisons also grew more dangerous after a 2012 directive that wardens shrink their maximum security units, which were under 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
A growing national consensus that prisons overuse solitary confinement has prompted many states, including New Mexico and California, to shrink their solitary populations. Shrinking the solitary population is often unpopular with staff. But even supporters of such policies worried when Tennessee reduced its population remarkably quickly -- from 1,019 in 2011 to 562 a year later, according to TDOC statistics.
“The number of max has dropped by half,” said Friedman of the Human Rights Defense Center, who has supported reductions in solitary confinement. “The problem is, of course, some guys, they’re max for a reason.”
About the same time, TDOC instituted a policy that more “close” security inmates, the level below maximum, could live in medium security dorms. Staff interviewed by NBC News said this effectively allowed high-security inmates, some very recently off max, to mingle with more vulnerable inmates in dorms monitored by fewer officers. One department PowerPoint presentation Lester provided to NBC News said these policies would bring “improved inmate behavior,” but also “cost savings” by reducing the staffing in close custody units. TDOC said the max reforms were not a cost-savings measure.
The policies had quick and bloody consequences, said a dozen current and former staffers from three prisons interviewed by NBC News.
“People don’t like change, but if the change was good it would be fine,” said a longtime manager at West Tennessee who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “If the violence had not soared, everything would have been fine. We very rarely had an incident in our prison. When it started happening two to three times a week, units being locked down, everyone was like, what in the world has happened here?”
In 2014, tier management, a signature policy of Schofield’s administration, was implemented to help maintain order. It alternates locking down half of a pod of prisoners at a time to better control high-risk populations.
“Just allowing all the inmates to do what they want, come in and out of the dorms when they want to, that's not good management,” Schofield told NBC News. “We did put some things in to control that. It's really about getting them ready to go home. I had an obligation to ensure that we provide programming and treatment.”
Critics said it was rolled out too broadly. When tier management came to Unit 6, a good-behavior dorm at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, it prevented prisoners from going to their jobs and other programs, according to an internal memo obtained by NBC News. Staff and prisoners balked.
“Both staff and inmates have vocalized the truth that tension on Unit 6 has only increased since tier management began,” the prison’s unit manager and chief of security wrote in a June 2014 memo to the facility’s leadership. “Rather than making the unit more secure tier management has the exact opposite effect.”
Trouble at West Tennessee
Then in mid-2014, TDOC rolled out a new 28-day schedule described as a way to democratize shift assignment and reduce overtime, saving about $1.4 million. For some officers, it meant erratic days off, a dramatic drop in overtime pay, and the last straw. Hundreds left. Understaffing reached near-crisis levels at West Tennessee State Penitentiary.
Notes from warden’s meetings at West Tennessee obtained by NBC News show a facility stretched thin. In April 2015, it had 71 correctional officer vacancies. Acting Warden Rob Henry told staff “that the institution is volatile right now,” according to meeting notes, adding, “We know everyone is tired, but we have a plan that will give us some needed relief.” By the following month, two units had been shut down, its officers reassigned to relieve some of the staff shortage. The department sent in its “Strike Force” team, a black-clad tactical team that is a prison’s answer to SWAT, to beef up staffing.
Soon after, TDOC asked employees at other prisons, including one 500 miles away, to help fill vacancies. By August, West Tennessee was 148 correctional officers short, in a prison that counted its total staff at about 390. TDOC’s annual turnover reached 40 percent in fiscal year 2015,up from 25 percent when Schofield arrived in 2011.
TDOC described the shortages as on par with those faced by prison systems across the country, particularly in competitive job markets. TDOC’s Taylor added that bonuses and training have since cut total vacancies by almost half from a high of 386 in July 2015.
“All of our facilities are sufficiently staffed for the populations that they house,” she said.
But posts were empty at West Tennessee last August, when prisoner Christopher Perry lay in his cell bleeding from wounds to his back, leg and neck.
Perry’s assailant, Amos Jones, lived in a different housing unit. That morning, Jones moved through six security doors and a gate that was supposed to be locked, sources said. He entered Perry’s dorm, walked up to the second tier and stabbed Perry in his cell, said staff and inmates, then returned to his own cell without any officer stopping him. Prison records show several posts were vacant that day.
It was not until Perry, a medium security prisoner serving a murder sentence, limped bleeding across the yard toward the infirmary that staff noticed something amiss, sources said.
Perry’s mother heard about her son’s stabbing not from TDOC, but from another inmate’s relative who told her Christopher had been life-flighted to a hospital with stab wounds.
“I immediately called the prison because I thought it was a hoax,” said Grace Perry. “Then they gave me the runaround. It was quite a long period of time before they admitted it was true.”
A rash of stabbings followed. On the morning of October 1, Stanley Smith was airlifted out of West Tennessee, according to an incident report obtained by NBC News. Sources said Smith had been slashed multiple times, including a wound to his neck that left the 30-year-old with partial facial paralysis. Two hours later two inmates unlocked the door of Charles Richardson’s cell, then beat, robbed and stabbed him, an incident report shows.
In January 2016, TDOC abruptly announced a “mission change” for West Tennessee. One side would become a women’s facility to help house the state’s growing female prison population, the other a high-security men’s facility. The transition is still in the works. TDOC began to transfer prisoners from West Tennessee to other prisons across the state.
Some of the prisoners, like 51-year-old James Thweatt, landed at the newly-opened Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, Tenn. He soon began to tell his wife that the privately-run prison was worse than the state facility he left.
“Compared to Trousdale, West Tennessee was a walk in the park,” said Bridget Thweatt, 55.
“Not a single day of on-the-job training”
More than 300 people gathered for a ribbon-cutting at Trousdale prison last December. Trousdale County was happy to see it open -- the prison is expected to contribute about $1.5 million in taxes to this rural county and provide 409 jobs.
While the facility was built to hold state prisoners, Corrections Corporation of America’s five-year, $276 million contract is technically with Trousdale County. Tennessee law essentially prohibits having more than one private prison in the state. But thanks to partnerships like these, where the county acts as a pass-through, CCA, which is based in Tennessee, runs four private prisons in the state.At 2,552 beds, Trousdale would be its largest.
The project, first proposed in 2009, had stalled in recent years. But it revived in 2013 thanks to both a growing prison population and a state administration friendly to private industry.
One former employee said he responded to an ad for jobs at the facility on Craigslist, looking for a career and a chance to spend more time with his family. He went through a five-week classroom training. He said trainees were told they would spend at least a week shadowing more experienced officers at another facility. CCA said it never told trainees they would spend a week in another facility and that is not part of its routine training. Instead, he said, they spent that week in December power-washing fences and cleaning floors at the prison to prepare for the men about to land under their watch.
“None of us had a single day of on-the-job training before they turned inmates loose on us,” said the former employee, who asked not to be named because his relatives still work at the prison.
Trousdale was supposed to offer rehabilitative and jobs programs. But from early on, said prisoners and former employees, there was simply not the staff to run them. CCA said that claim is false. Trousdale has education, life skills, and vocational programs up and running, CCA said, and it will continue to roll programs out as the prison grows.
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.
The strain took a toll on both prisoners and officers, who often did 12-hour shifts alone in a pod overseeing more than 120 men.“The worse the schedule got, the worse [the prisoners’] behavior would become,” said a former employee. CCA said the facility was appropriately staffed and met TDOC standards.
Inmates who knew their way around the system saw a prison quickly becoming a powder keg.
“This facility is grossly understaffed and getting worse by the day,” James Thweatt, who has spent time in several facilities while serving a 20-plus year sentence for robbery, wrote to his wife Bridget in early May. “These living conditions are going to lead to unnecessary acts of violence amongst not only the inmate population but administration as well.”
On the morning of Feb. 26, one inmate was stabbed in his cell by a group of prisoners after his door had been left unlocked, according to prisoner and family accounts.
The prisoner was left with minor injuries, said CCA spokesman Steve Owen, and one officer was dismissed for failing to follow procedures.
A week later, the warden was abruptly transferred to Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility, also run by CCA. Metro’s warden replaced him at Trousdale. CCA described the job swap as part of its long-term planning strategy.
“This represents one of the strengths of CCA, in that we have a deep bench of experienced corrections professionals from which to draw upon,” said Owen.
State prison officials were well aware of problems at Trousdale. In mid-March, a TDOC official sent a memo up the chain detailing “serious issues” with top-level supervisors. Correctional Administrator Tony Howerton described a prison where “inmates are free to mingle around the unit at will.”
The memo, first obtained by the Associated Press and subsequently by NBC News, also found men were being placed in solitary confinement without explanation and noted one incident of potential excessive use of force by staff. Howerton recommended halting the ramp-up of prisoners to the facility until problems were addressed.
Two months later, TDOC and CCA did stop sending inmates to Trousdale.
CCA told NBC News it was “in the process of increasing staffing levels and conducting training necessary to support additional transfers of inmates to the facility.” It added that the problems cited in the memo have been corrected, and that both training and operations meet both CCA and TDOC standards.
“The staffing pattern and pod supervisory approach are both approved by TDOC and used by the state in its own facilities,” CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns said in an email. “We take the recruitment and hiring of qualified professionals very seriously, and the facility is currently staffed at safe and appropriate levels.”
TDOC described the issues at Trousdale as “growing pains.”
“Like any startup of a prison, there's going to be a moment where we take a time out and say, ‘Are we okay? Are things working right?’” Schofield told NBC News. “There are some issues that we might need to take a look at. There's nothing unusual from any other prisons.”
He did not say when TDOC would resume sending prisoners to Trousdale. It may be someone else’s decision to make -- this month, Schofield will hand over the reins to take up his position at the GEO Group. While many of his policies have proved controversial, he said they were done with the welfare of the prisoners, the prisons, and the state in mind.
“Everything we did, it was intentional,” Schofield said. “It was for the best interest of this agency and the state of Tennessee.”
Critics said they hope his departure will bring another round of changes to Tennessee’s prisons.
“We’ve been calling for changes in the department for some time,” said State Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who headed up several inquiries into issues at TDOC. “Hopefully this presents an opportunity for a new leadership team to come in and look at all the concerns that we have been raising and address them in a substantive and significant way.”
But the same critics worry the next leader may follow in the footsteps of the commissioner that Haslam, for one, has wholeheartedly supported.
"I want to be as clear as I can: Derrick Schofield has been a great commissioner of correction," the governor told Nashville station WKRN last week. “I begged him to stay. It's a really good offer that he thinks is the right thing for him. But I couldn't be more grateful for the work he's done here, and I will miss him."