Shelby County Commissioner calls for audit of jails and prisons

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The Shelby County jail at 201 Poplar

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer is calling for a full audit of the jails and prisons under the Shelby County Government’s control.

Sawyer made the announcement on Facebook with the letter she wrote to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

“I believe this is an urgent request considering the Tennessee Comptroller’s scathing review of the state prisons …,” Sawyer wrote on Facebook. She went on to mention the allegations of inhumane conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman, and a report showing Shelby County tried more youth as adults than any other country in Tennessee.

The 200 page report Sawyer is referencing highlighted the Tennessee Department of Correction’s inability to compile accurate data on inmate deaths, facility lockdowns and use of force by correctional officers over the past two years.

For example, after analyzing a small sample of 38 inmate deaths the comptroller’s office found that state had reported inaccurate causes of death for eight inmates.

One inmate’s death listed as “natural” was actually a homicide, another listed as “natural” turned out to be an accident from an overdose of fentanyl and synthetic opioid. The report also found missing files in many of the inmates’ paper health files.

In total, 171 inmates died from Oct. 1, 2017, through May 30, 2019.

The report pointed to both state and privately operated facilities staff as failing to provide adequate oversight. In Tennessee, four out of the 10 prisons are operated by Tennessee-based CoreCivic.

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, whose office manages the county’s detention center at 201 Poplar, said in a letter to County Commissioner Mark Billingsley that similar problems were not happening at the local facility, which is a pre-trial facility and does not house convicted inmates.

“I am aware of disturbing reports about facilities that house convicted individuals and I can assure that there are no such grievous problems at our facilities,” Bonner wrote.

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