Tennessee lawmakers trying to digest critical prison audit


The Tennessee State Capitol Building in downtown Nashville is seen in this photo. A Tennessee state house panel voted on March 5, 2019, to advance a business anti-discrimination bill that advocacy groups fear would further an anti-LGBT agenda in the state.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. —There are nearly 600 vacancies among the 3400 correction officer positions in the department that runs Tennessee prisons.

The eye raising figure came out today as the correction department commissioner once again was questioned by state lawmakers about a critical prison audit from the state comptroller.

“In our report we raised numerous serious issues relating to the department,” began comptroller Justin Wilson as he had last week before a House committee, but this time it was before a Senate committee

The two hundred page report from earlier this month by the comptroller documented numerous findings within the correction department.

“They place the inmates, the employees and the community at risk if left unchecked,” added the comptroller in his presentation.

The findings included misreporting by the correction department of prison deaths and assaults along with a lack of accountability on things like paying for inmate health care.

Staffing issues are at the root of the problem maintains correction department commissioner Tony Parker.

“In regards to correctional officers alone, a week and a half, two weeks ago, it was close to 590 vacancies,” Parker told the Senate committee.

The department says that’s out of 3400 correctional officer positions.

Other problems found in the audit included 358-thousand dollars monthly to keep a decades old computer system running.

“We have some issues with technology,” said Parker. “We have to increase our technology capacity and enhance that because we are operating on an old 30-year system…time has left us.”

The hearing turned testy with the issue of “credits” being given by the department to vendors who contract with the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Then there was a health care contract that gave credits worth two million dollars to a prison medical vendors drew the ire of senators.

“We need you and we need the vendors to follow the contract that you duly entered and not wing this,” said Sen. Steve Dickerson. “Two million dollars. I think all nine of us are about to come over the dais here. This is unbelievable.”

Those on the dais in front of the correction department team stayed put, but Senator Ken Yager added “we could use that money for salaries.”

The governor has said he plans to propose a pay increase for correction workers.

It would be the second straight year of an increase, but no figures yet on how much.

The correction department maintains it is already taking action on many of the audit findings, but the staffing issue remains its biggest hurdle.

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