Rise in TN prison violence alarms watchdog groups - WSMV Channel 4

Rise in TN prison violence alarms watchdog groups

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Prison violence in Tennessee is skyrocketing, and watchdog groups say a rise in violence since a new commissioner took over is alarming.

They say new Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield has turned the prison system into a military operation and it's backfiring.

Some would argue that prison should be an uncomfortable time for inmates, but prison violence is up 20 percent - including assaults - since Schofield took over the state's prisons in January 2011.

Alex Friedmann, with the Human Rights Defense Center, said that statistic can't be a coincidence.

"If you look at it from a business perspective, if the commissioner were running a company, and while he was running that company things got 20 percent worse across the board, he would be out of a job," Friedmann said.

The Human Rights Defense Center and three other groups believe Schofield has implemented 10 new policies that have created tension in the prisons.

"Since the commissioner was appointed, he has instituted a variety of new policies that did not exist previously in Tennessee's prison system. And many view these policies as being very punitive and militaristic. The problem is the policies don't seem to be achieving the goal to improve institutional security. In fact, they seem to be doing the exact opposite," Friedmann said.

Three policies in particular jump out to the critics. Tennessee prisoners now must stand in line outside, even in the rain, while waiting for meals; there is a 5 a.m., fully dressed head count that even includes prisoners who work night shifts; and prisoners are not allowed to put their hands in their pockets, even in freezing weather.

Friedmann acknowledges some people believe prison should be hard, awful and uncomfortable.

"The problem is 95 percent of the people in prison will one day be out of prison and back in our communities. The question is what kind of people do we want to be released back out to our communities - people who have been beaten down and who are angry and upset with the system due to the way they were treated while they were in, or people who received the programs, services and resources they need to rehabilitate themselves so they don't reoffend once they get out?" Friedmann said.

The Department of Correction said violence is flat, citing an October 2011 report, but the watchdog groups say that report is outdated and the new numbers clearly show a new rise.

In addition, four wardens have retired or resigned since January 2011. Channel 4 News spoke with one on the phone who believes that Schofield is misguided.

"The things he put in place, like every warden will train every two years, well in two years you're just getting to know your people," said Penny Tucker, a retired associated prison warden. "His lack of listening to and getting rid of his most experienced people has a lot to do with violence going up."

In response to these widespread criticisms, the Department of Correction denies there have been increases in violence.

A statement from Schofield said:

"This department's policies are focused on building accountability and changing behavior."

A new report on prison violence from the Department of Correction is set for publication on Oct. 1.

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