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HRDC study shows violence up 20% in TN prisons under new commissioner

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2012.
Press release - HRDC study shows violence up 20% in TN prisons under new commissioner 2012

PRESS RELEASE

Human Rights Defense Center – For Immediate Release

September 18, 2012

Violence in Tennessee State Prisons up 20 Percent Under New Commissioner

Nashville, TN – The Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of people who are incarcerated, today released data indicating that levels of violence in state prisons have increased about 20 percent under Tennessee Dept. of Corrections (TDOC) Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield, appointed by Governor Haslam in January 2011.

According to statistical data obtained from the TDOC pursuant to public records requests, the number of violent incidents in three categories – prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and institutional disturbances – have increased substantially during the first 18 months of Commissioner Schofield’s tenure.

Based on TDOC data from January 2010 through June 2012, the average number of assaults on prison staff systemwide increased from 55 per month in 2010, before Commissioner Schofield was appointed, to 67.67 per month for the first six months of 2012 – an increase of 23%.

The average rate of violent incidents per 1,000 prisoners increased from 15.57 per month in 2010 to 18.56 per month for the first six month of 2012, or an 18% increase. And the average number of violent incidents per facility per month has increased from 22.17 in 2010 to 26.24 for the first six months of 2012 – an 18.3 percent increase.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, who served time in Tennessee prisons in the 1990s prior to his release in 1999.

The escalating amount of violence in Tennessee state prisons coincides with a number of new policies implemented by Commissioner Schofield, many of which are perceived as punitive and unwarranted by prisoners and even some prison staff. The policy changes include:

• Prisoners are required to walk in a single-file line under staff escort on the compound, a specified distance apart, and are not allowed to talk.

• Prisoners are not allowed to have their hands in their pockets while under escort, even during cold weather, and the TDOC has not issued gloves to all prisoners.

• Daily cell inspections are held in which prisoners have to stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected.

• Property rules have been repeatedly changed, and property items that prisoners were previously allowed to own have been prohibited.

• When prisoners are called to meals they are required to line up and wait outside until it is their turn to go to the dining hall; when it is raining they must stand in the rain.

• Arts and crafts programs have been curtailed at some facilities, including in-cell arts and crafts; also, access to musical instruments has been restricted.

• Most recently, prisoners are required to be standing by their bunks in their cells during the morning count, which is held at 5:00am to 6:00am; this was never done previously.


“Questions that need to be answered include why levels of violence are increasing, whether that increase is a result of the new policies implemented by Commissioner Schofield, and if not, what is behind the escalating violence. Also, most importantly, why the Commissioner apparently has been unable to curb violence in state prisons, particularly against staff,” Friedmann said.

He added there is concern that the new policies will lead to even more violence, including riots like the ones that swept state prisons in 1985, and that the TDOC appears to be anticipating this by training a large number of staff as tactical officers and equipping them with riot gear.

“Rather than preparing for riots that may occur, the TDOC should be seeking solutions to the increasing levels of violence in an effort to prevent any riots from happening in the first place,” HRDC director Paul Wright noted.

Since the Tennessee legislature dissolved the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections in June 2011 there has been no direct oversight over the state prison system, except through the Governor’s office and the standing legislative Judiciary Committees.

“Both Governor Haslam and the chairpersons of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees were notified of rising levels of violence in Tennessee state prisons in March 2012, including increased violence against staff; they received copies of a letter that was sent to Commissioner Schofield to that effect. However, they expressed no interest,” said Friedmann.

The letter sent to Commissioner Schofield on March 8, 2012 was signed by four Nashville-based organizations: the Human Rights Defense Center, Reconciliation, TN CURE and the Tennessee Alliance for Reform. While the Commissioner responded to the letter, according to Friedmann he “did not address or respond to the gravamen of our concerns,” i.e., whether his new policies “are resulting in increased levels of violence in Tennessee’s prison system.”

The TDOC is well aware of the increasing violence; for example, in a June 2011 internal report, state prison officials noted “The June 2011 violent incident rate is greater (17.7%) than the May 2011 rate and is also greater (19.2%) than the June 2010 rate.” And in a November 2011 report the TDOC indicated that the “violent incident rate is higher (8.7%) than the October 2011 rate and is higher (25.0%) than the November 2010 rate.”

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The Human Rights Defense Center. HRDC, founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.


For further information, please contact:

Alex Friedmann, Associate Director
Human Rights Defense Center (Southeast office)
(615) 495-6568
afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org