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Tennessee lawmakers wrestle with a scathing audit of prisons

January 14, 2020 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s correction agency failed to provide adequate oversight to ensure the safety of the state’s inmates and public, a scathing new audit has found.

The report has sparked alarm among state lawmakers, many of whom raised concerns on Monday about the 18 negative findings and observations outlined in the audit.

“I’ve never seen a 200 page report like this,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, speaking at a Monday hearing meant for a procedural vote that included hours of discussion about the audit.

The report — prepared by the state’s comptroller’s office — highlighted the correction agency’s inability to compile accurate data on inmate deaths, facility lockdowns and use of force by correctional officers over the past two years.

For example, after analyzing a small sample of 38 inmate deaths the comptroller’s office found that state had reported inaccurate causes of death for eight inmates.

One inmate’s death listed as “natural” was actually a homicide, another listed as “natural” turned out to be an accident from an overdose of fentanyl and synthetic opioid. The report also found missing files in many of the inmates’ paper health files.

In total, 171 inmates died from Oct. 1, 2017, through May 30, 2019.

“I agree with the comptroller, there’s room for improvement,” said Correction Commissioner Tony Parker during the hearing.

Parker did not dispute the majority of the audit’s findings, adding that he has pushed for improvements mentioned in the report over the years. And despite the concerns mentioned in the report, Parker pointed out the agency’s strong accreditation scores and industry awards it has received.

The report also mentioned the department’s mishandling of sexual abuse and harassment investigations and its inability to demonstrate that inmates received sufficient health services due to issues involving health records, medicine dispensing and medication transfer.

“Because of these internal control deficiencies, management’s ability to provide accurate and complete information to key decision makers is problematic, impacting both management’s oversight of facility operations and its ability to provide a safe and secure correctional environment,” the report stated.

The report pointed to both state and privately operated facilities staff as failing to provide adequate oversight. In Tennessee, four out of the 10 prisons are operated by Tennessee-based CoreCivic.

Specifically, the report found that both the correction agency and CoreCivic did not log sexual misconduct allegations in a timely way. Nor did staff at two facilities maintain proper investigation documentation while handling sexual misconduct cases.

In response to the report, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said the company is “committed to the safety and dignity of every person entrusted to our care.”

Gilchrist added that all sexual misconduct allegations are “thoroughly and objectively investigated,” and promised to continue providing “total transparency” into their operations.

A separate finding in the report showed that the correction agency assessed nearly $2.1 million in contract noncompliance issues, but eventually collected just $92,020 from the medical service providers after offsetting the amount with a nonauthorized credit system.

“By creating new terms and conditions outside the normal contract process, management has subjected the state to the risk of financial repercussions from potential litigation, including risks associated with vendor solicitation and contract negotiations,” the report read.

Parker said the department will create an inspector general position that will answer to him, work directly with the state’s executive auditor and the comptroller’s office to shore up internal processes and controls, and will assume oversight of the administration of contracts.

Debbie Inglis, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the agency, said she agreed with the report’s finding. However, she said that at the time, the department believed it had authority to tweak how the state collected noncompliance assessments.

Lawmakers meticulously went over the report Monday, but ultimately did not agree upon further investigation or hearings on the findings flagged in the despite attempts by Democrats for more action.

“The public has had it to review for one weekend ... does this committee have no interest in oversight?” Stewart said. “We’ve already had one instance of $2 million misappropriation that we have no explanation and there’s no plan to get that money back.”

Other lawmakers countered that they would continue to call for further audits over the correction agency.

“I’m convinced after countless meetings, after reviewing countless audits, that we’re headed in the right direction,” said Sen. Kerry Roberts, a Republican from Springfield. “I’m not happy with where we are at. I’m happy with where we are going.”

Tennessee’s prison woes are similar to other states, where high turnover and proper reporting challenges.

In Alabama, attorneys for state inmates say prison officials have failed to dramatically increase the number of corrections officers— an issue that the U.S. Department of Justice last year said led to high rates of violence in Alabama prisons.

Recently, Mississippi’s prison system signed a 90-day contract to shift 375 inmates to a nearby private lockup after saying it didn’t have enough guards to safely keep the inmates in state custody.

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Reporter Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.