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PLN quoted in news report re TN DOC concealing violent incidents

Channel 4 WSMV, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN quoted in news report re TN DOC concealing violent incidents - Channel 4 WSMV 2014

Former TN prison wardens: State agency hiding records of assault

Posted: Apr 25, 2014 6:30 PM CDT
Updated: Apr 25, 2014 6:51 PM CDT
Reported by Jeremy Finley - email


Two former top officials with the Tennessee Department of Correction said the agency is deleting cases of assaults in state prisons on staff and inmates in order to improve statistics.

The Channel 4 I-Team obtained records of assaults in a state prison that were later deleted, and an internal memo also indicated that cases of assaults should be deleted because reviews of those cases found them to be something other than assaults.

Jerry Lester, the former warden of West Tennessee State Penitentiary, said he was assaulted in his own prison, and there is no record of his assault.

Lester provided the Channel 4 I-Team with video of a riot in the prison on Oct. 9, 2012.

"I was attacked from behind by three inmates," Lester said.

In the video, Lester was caught up in the fight, and afterwards, started to feel pain.

"I ended up having to have a surgery from a torn rotator cuff, and was unaware but my arm was broken as well," Lester said.

The Channel 4 I-Team obtained records related to the riot, and there is no record of an assault on the warden.

In fact, none of the inmates involved in the riot were ever charged with assault. Instead, they were disciplined for "participation in a security threat group." Lester said it's a charge that isn't included in yearly statistics of assaults, provided to Gov. Bill Haslam and the public.

"Do you think we, as the general public, are being told the truth about what's happening in the prisons in the state?" asked chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.

"Absolutely not. You're being given a sugar-coated version of what's taking place," Lester said.

"I don't think the public knows what's happening in the prisons," said Andrew Lewis, a former deputy warden at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.

Lewis said after spending much of his career investigating assaults in prison, he was told by his warden at BCCC that he was no longer allowed to classify assaults on internal reports and the wardens would now review each case and make that determination.

"Experienced staff knew what an assault on staff was. I knew what an assault on staff was," Lewis said.

Lester said he and other wardens were given a clear message from TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield and his upper management.

"Anything that could be changed to an inmate/staff provocation, we were to do so," Lester said.

"Is it safe to say you were encouraged to turn assaults into something else?" Finley asked.

"Encouraged, if not ordered to," Lester said.

"That's the way I felt, that we really don't want the accurate number of assaults reported," Lewis said.

These former top officials said the reason for deleting or reclassifying assaults is because of the rising number of assaults on offenders and staff in state prisons.

In 2010, there were 612 assaults on staff. In 2011, there were 716, and in 2012, there were 779 assaults.

But after wardens started evaluating the cases in late 2012, the numbers dropped.

Reported assaults on offenders dropped from 528 in 2012 to 433 in 2013.

Reported assaults on staff dropped from 779 in 2012 to 704 in 2013.

"All we've actually done over the past two years is rename a lot of the incident so they don't appear as assaults," Lester said.

Schofield denied repeated requests from the Channel 4 I-Team to do an interview, but he did send a statement, saying that he directed the wardens to evaluate assault cases after a September 2012 audit from the comptroller's office that urged the state to clarify its policy on reporting incidents. The audit said confusion on the policy could lead to inconsistent reporting of incidents.

But Lester said the effort instead has been to eliminate reports.

"Records have been purged. Electronic records of assaults, different types of incidents have been renamed," Lester said.

Another source provided the Channel 4 I-Team a memo dated April 2012 from Jason Woodall, deputy commissioner of operations for TDOC, that shows assault cases reported by staff.

The memo indicates after they were reviewed, 12 of those cases were deleted, citing that errors were made in the initial reporting.

The Channel 4 I-Team obtained copies of some of those cases before they were deleted.

One reads an inmate was hit in the mouth by another inmate and evaluated by a nurse. The hand-written notes on the bottom of the incident report reads that it was coded incorrectly and needs to be deleted and that no inmate was charged.

"Just because an inmate was not charged with an institutional offense, it doesn't mean you erase the report as if it didn't happen, when it really did," said prison watchdog Alex Friedman.

Friedmann, with the Human Rights Defense Center, said none of the cases the Channel 4 I-Team showed him, which were first deemed as assaults and later found to be something else, should have ever been deleted.

"State prison officials are hiding information from the public. They're deleting records, and the people have a right to know," Friedman said.

The Channel 4 I-Team sent all those records to Schofield for clarification and for further explanation, but he would not do an interview.

"When incidents are found to be incorrect, modifications and deletions are required," Schofield wrote in his statement. "TDOC has never attempted to 'cover up' assaults or any other incidents."

Lester and Lewis said even Gov. Haslam hasn't been given the correct number of assaults.

"You have concerns that he doesn't know?" Finley asked.

"Yes," Lewis said.

"If this doesn't wake people up and make people understand that the way prison officials are reporting incidents and basically covering up higher levels of assaults, then I'm not sure what it would take," Friedman said.

Lester was fired from his position, not for poor job performance, but because a woman claims he texted her an unwanted sexual video. Lester said he thought he was texting his wife.

Lewis retired on good standing.

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