Dec 16, 2021 - News

Tennessee prisons see overdoses surge

The sign outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, a state prison in Nashville.
The sign outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, a state prison in Nashville. Photo: Adam Tamburin/Axios

Tennessee prisons have seen a spike in overdose deaths this year that mirrors trends across the state.

  • Officials say a growing amount of drugs laced with fentanyl could be driving the increase, which is spurring some changes behind bars.

Why it matters: At least 31 inmate deaths across nine facilities in 2021 have been classified as accidental and drug-related, according to state data shared last week with Axios.

  • That number is likely to increase as more inmate deaths are investigated and classified.
  • The Tennessee Department of Correction takes in more than $1.1 billion annually in state funding but has been criticized for mismanagement, understaffing, and safety concerns.

What they're saying: Former commissioner Tony Parker, who retired last month, recently told lawmakers that fighting drugs and rooting out contraband in prisons was a "never-ending battle."

By the numbers: A statewide report noted 1,842 incidents of drug selling, possession, or use in prisons during fiscal year 2021, up from 1,576 the previous year.

What's happening: Jim Casey, TDOC director of behavioral health services, tells Axios the department is taking steps to "try and attack this problem with a vengeance."

  • A new withdrawal management unit was established this year in West Tennessee to serve inmates who survive overdose events.
  • Last month, the department announced the arrival of new body scanners at every prison in an attempt to crack down on contraband. The department also publicizes arrests of officers and civilians suspected in contraband questions.

The other side: Faye Taxman, director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at George Mason University, tells Axios that prisons are not always equipped with all the tools needed to treat serious addictions.

  • "They have policies that oftentimes are counterproductive," Taxman said.
  • Taxman says prisons should offer medications such as methadone that can ease withdrawal symptoms. TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter said the department offers medication-assisted treatment.
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