Sep 29, 2022 - News

Tennessee lawmakers grill prison officials

Illustration of the Tennessee State Capitol building with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

State prison leaders faced withering bipartisan criticism at a legislative hearing this week, with lawmakers from both parties questioning the Department of Correction's handling of staffing shortages and record keeping.

Why it matters: Multiple lawmakers said they were underwhelmed by the agency's response to a 2020 audit that found widespread mismanagement across the state prison system, including the mishandling of inmate death data and sexual abuse claims.

  • The department, which takes in more than $1.2 billion in annual state funding, is poised to play a significant role in the upcoming legislative session. Leaders are expected to pursue more policies that could lengthen prison terms for many offenders.

The latest: Correction officials presented a high-level overview of their work Monday during a meeting with a panel of lawmakers.

  • Interim commissioner Lisa Helton said the department had addressed 17 of the audit's critical findings and was considering more improvements to the way the department compiles its statistics reports.
  • "I think it is a positive story — a lot of good things going on," Helton said of the department's work.

Yes, but: Lawmakers said the progress report was not specific enough to show if on-the-ground conditions really had improved since the audit.

What they're saying: "The whole idea here is you had a terrible audit and now you're trying to come back and correct that," said outgoing state Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville).

  • "I don't have any sense as to whether all this multitude of problems has been solved or not."
  • Stewart questioned if a federal takeover might be necessary to improve matters.

"I have to admit that I am disappointed," said state Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), adding that there was "no documentation on our part" showing what work had been done.

  • Pody said he had reached out to the commissioner’s office to discuss that work in detail but hadn't gotten a response.
  • "It certainly leaves me uncomfortable with the progress that we're making."

Meanwhile, Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) said other lawmakers who were watching the hearing online had reached out to him with complaints. He poked holes in the department's positive framing of its staff vacancies.

  • Vacancies at state-run prisons stood at 47.5% in December but officials said they have dipped to 29.3% this year following legislative approval of staff raises.
  • "Bragging about it going to 29% is not a management victory," Ragan said.

What's next: State Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) told his colleagues state auditors would return to the prison system next year for a review that would provide the kind of "deep dive" lawmakers wanted.

  • TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter tells Axios officials are "working to provide the additional information requested."
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