By design, prisons are places shut off from the rest of society.
But the state’s newest and largest prison is unlike any other. It’s run by a private company with public money.
Lawmakers say they’ve been kept out. Volunteers say they’ve been turned away.
The Channel 4 I-Team was told months ago we would not be visiting the facility or interviewing anyone connected to the company, CoreCivic.
But some former employees and inmates’ families are calling the new Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility the worst prison they have ever seen.
It’s a challenge to tell the story of the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, when no one from the state or the prison will grant an interview or a tour of the facility.
The I-Team has relied on interviews with several current and former employees, lawmakers, advocates, and families members of those housed at the facility.
We have obtained internal documents and some public records we requested and were initially billed hundreds of dollars for, but only after many months of stonewalling by CoreCivic.
The stories the I-Team has heard consistently describe a prison severely understaffed and overrun with gangs, violence, drugs and inefficiency.
Families say medium security inmates, men who theoretically pose a moderate risk, have been locked down in cells for weeks without showers and sometimes food.
“These lockdowns didn’t last for one or two days, they’d last for weeks and weeks and weeks,” said Jacque Steubbel, a former chaplain at Trousdale. “And if you take that many men and put them in a pressure tank, you’re going to have problems.”
As a chaplain, Steubbel said she saw plenty of problems, and meticulously documented them.
A month into the job, Steubbel was told by an inmate that a half dozen sharp daggers were hidden in a ceiling.
“They would go up through an AC vent and unscrew part of the roof,” she said. “And some of those shanks were this long, and they were selling them.
But the door was open for the same thing to happen again.
“When we left, they didn’t lock the utility door back and the opening was still there,” Steubbel said. “And I told the correctional officer this really needs to be secure, this area. They’ll just go up into the ceiling.”
That’s just one example of what the former chaplain called lax security.
An incident report tells the story of an inmate who controlled all the keys to the educational offices and more, with the administrator’s blessing.
“They found keys, TOMIS codes, other entry passwords and so forth in this inmate Joseph Brennan’s cell,” Steubbel said. “You could access the entire TDOC computer system. The teachers had to go to the inmate to get keys in education.”
Steubbel didn’t go to Trousdale with unrealistic expectations. She had been a prison chaplain at three other correctional facilities also run by CoreCivic.
Steubbel said she didn’t intend to become a whistleblower. She said it became her duty, ethically and morally as a minister, to speak out.
“I had an inmate come to me and he had lost his tooth. He was in a lot of pain and was holding his tooth. He said, ‘I can’t get seen by a dentist,’” Steubbel said.
“He had tried for three days carrying his tooth around, and he was going to try to glue it back in with Super Glue. There for the grace of God could be one of us,” she added.
A suicidal inmate was also discovered hanging in a cell.
“I heard on the radio, cut down tool immediately. And so I went to the cellblock myself, because cut down tool means there’s a suicide,” Steubbel said.
“They told me, ‘You can’t go in there, chaplain.’ And I said, ‘Yes I can.’ And I went in there and here’s a man hanging and they’re spraying him with pepper spray,” she added.
“I’m holding his hand and it’s covered in pepper spray. And he happened to be Muslim. I said, ‘Brother, I’m with you. You’re not alone.’ And he was covered with pepper spray and he was not a threat. I mean, when you’re dangling like this, that’s the response. Spray them,” Steubbel said.
Excessive use of pepper spray at Trousdale was criticized by Tennessee Department of Correction officials shortly after the prison opened.
After seeing video of a disciplinary takedown, correctional administrator Tony Howerton wrote, “The inmate in my opinion was already compliant … but he was sprayed.”
Howerton called the action, “at minimum, unnecessary force … but could be classified as excessive force.”
The I-Team asked to see that video, but CoreCivic refused, saying it would reveal too much about security.
But an internal memo obtained by the I-Team reveals some telling numbers. It shows Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility at the top of the list of Tennessee prisons when it comes to using chemical agents, with 102 incidents in a 10-month span. That is compared to seven at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
Riverbend holds just over 800 prisoners. Trousdale holds over 2,600.
The five highest numbers on the list where pepper spray was used the most are all places the state has entrusted to CoreCivic.
Apart from pepper spray, Steubbel said force was many times excessive and unforgettable.
“I heard there was a disturbance in one of the pods, and I looked through the entrance door and in the hallway, and this image will never leave my mind,” Steubbel said.
Steubbel said she saw two guards beating a prisoner who was on the floor.
“His hands were shackled behind his back, young African American man, hitting him and hitting him and hitting him over and over. And he was screaming, ‘Stop,’” Steubbel said.
“That’s not right, it’s not necessary. And I will never get that image out of my mind,” she said.
In the small town of Hartsville, where the prison pays the biggest tax bill, Trousdale County Mayor Carroll Carman said the problems are news to him.
“You can count the number of calls my office has received in these fingers right here. It’s hidden primarily in our county and no one thinks about it,” Carman said.
Steubbel no longer works at Trousdale or for CoreCivic. The company said she was fired “for cause” after what they referred to as an investigation that “substantiated misconduct.”
The company claimed she was “providing misleading information to investigators” and now has a motive to “impugn our company.”
Prior to our interview, Steubbel told the I-Team she was terminated by CoreCivic based on what she claimed were false allegations from an incident at her previous post in Texas. She provided documentation of her claims.
She also shared an unemployment determination that awarded her compensation, charged to CoreCivic, with a finding that her employer fired her for a “reason that was not misconduct connected with the work.”
After charging the I-Team more than $200 for copying those public records, CoreCivic returned that check, but not others, saying our request didn’t take as many man hours as anticipated.
The I-Team has been investigating claims at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility since early last summer. Whenever new reports of assault, deaths and other disturbances surfaced, we have asked for incident reports, photos, videos and answers to questions.
Our most recent request was on June 1. No photos or videos have ever been shared.
The I-Team has not yet received the batch of records we requested in late March.
A state representative and the I-Team repeatedly asked for access to the facility or in-person interviews, and those requests were denied.
While the company offered a media tour on a short notice in April, it was at a time when Demetria Kalodimos was on assignment out of state. We asked to reschedule, and CoreCivic has yet to do that.
Late last week, CoreCivic responded to some of our long-pending questions, saying in part medical privacy considerations precluded them from providing details on deaths or injuries. They also generically stated that their staff acted appropriately in all situations.
Watch Channel 4 News at 6:00 on Tuesday for more on the many calls to 911 and why several employees said “no one is allowed to die at a CoreCivic prison.”
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