Audit Finds Troubled Conditions in Poorly Managed Tennessee Prisons


The Tennessee Department of Correction failed to provide adequate oversight to ensure the safety of the state’s incarcerated people and the public, according to a new audit by the Tennessee comptroller’s office.

The 210-page report released on Friday covers the period from October 1, 2017, to July 31, 2019, and details more than a dozen policy breaches, including that prison officials failed to compile “valid and reliable” data on deaths, facility lockdowns, and use of force by correctional officers.

Auditors inspected both state facilities and private prisons run by CoreCivic, the Tennessee-based for-profit corporation that operates four of the state’s 10 prisons, including some of its most notoriously troubled facilities. They found that both state and privately operated facilities failed to provide adequate oversight.

The scathing new audit raised concerns among Tennessee lawmakers, AP reports. “I’ve never seen a 200-page report like this,” Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) said at a hearing on Monday.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) tweeted on Friday that the results were “100% unacceptable” and called on the legislature to exercise more meaningful oversight of the state’s prisons. “We need permanent, staffed oversight committee that will get to the bottom of these problems,” he wrote.

Deaths, Injuries, and Uses of Force Were Misreported

Auditors found multiple instances where information about serious incidents was incorrect, incomplete, or not entered at all. “As a result, information reported to the public, including families of inmates and decision makers, may be incorrect,” the audit read.

For eight inmate deaths that were classified as natural deaths in official records, auditors found that five inmates actually died due to drug overdoses, two due to homicides, and one due to suicide. They also found that inmate health files were missing documentation that was required about the events surrounding the deaths, including certified death certificates.

Correctional staff did not properly report the most serious and violent incidents, auditors found. Officers involved in uses of force failed to file required reports and wardens did not submit required paperwork when staff were assaulted. Prison staff also failed to properly report injuries and accidents. And files that “provide evidence of government operations and hold government officials accountable for their actions” are often lost or destroyed.

“Because of these internal control deficiencies,” the report stated, “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.”

Sexual Abuse and Harassment Allegations Were Mishandled

The audit revealed that both the correction department and CoreCivic failed to properly investigate and respond to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. Investigators misclassified investigative results and didn’t record allegations in a timely manner, and staff at both state and private prisons failed to conduct required screenings used to prevent sexual abuse.

“Because many inmates do not report abuse out of fear of retaliation or shame, or because they do not believe that complaints of sexual abuse will result in any changes,” auditors wrote, “the department’s incident reporting may not capture the complete picture of inmate sexual abuse.”

Inadequate Medical and Mental Health Care

Serious deficiencies in medical and mental health documentation at both state and CoreCivic facilities raised concerns that incarcerated people aren’t receiving sufficient medical and mental health services, the report says. Auditors found numerous incidents where prison staff did not perform mental health checks for people at risk of suicide.

Auditors also found problems with medicine distribution at CoreCivic facilities that placed both incarcerated people and medical staff at risk. Although department policy requires “face-to-face observation and monitoring by a qualified health professional of an inmate taking their medication,” auditors said nurses regularly failed to ensure patients swallowed their pills.

Indeed, the audit found that medical service contractors Centurion of Tennessee, LLC and Corizon Health “have been unable to consistently meet contractually required medical and mental health staffing levels, increasing the risk that inmates will not receive needed services.”

The correction department assessed these providers nearly $2.1 million in contract noncompliance issues, but as the Associated Press reports, it collected only $92,020 after giving them credits for self-reported areas of good performance or efforts. Auditors weren’t able to determine whether the contractors actually corrected the deficiencies.

Programming and Services Denied Due to Staffing Shortages

Staffing also remains a key problem for Tennessee prisons, which on average operated with fewer than the approved number of correctional officers, impacting management’s ability to provide safe and secure facilities, especially in emergencies.

Incarcerated people are being denied programming and services like recreation time and transportation to medical appointments as a result of understaffing, auditors reported.

Turnover among correctional officers at CoreCivic’s facilities exceeded 50% in 2018, the comptroller found—but auditors also noted they can’t effectively track whether CoreCivic is meeting contractually required staffing levels because it continues to misreport the number of staff working in its facilities.