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PLN quoted in article on HRDC's joint letter re rising levels of violence in TN prisons

The Contributor, Jan. 1, 2012.
PLN quoted in article on HRDC's joint letter re rising levels of violence in TN prisons - The Contributor 2012

New prison policies lead to increased violence, group reports

Food Stamps, Welfare and the ‘Culture of Dependency’

Vol 6, No. 19 – October 11-31, 2012

Staff Writer

The Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), which oversees all of the state’s private and public prisons, says it has designed new policies to help those incarcerated “increase positive commitments to their communities,” but local advocacy groups contend that TDOC’s new policies make it more likely for those incarcerated to become victims of violence. Consequently, the rehabilitation of those inmates may be impaired by the fear and frustration those incidents create.

The number of incidents of violence in Tennessee prisons has “substantially increased” in the past two years, to about 367 incidents per month, according to the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which collaborated with other advocacy organizations to examine public records between January 2010 and June 2012. Comparatively, in 2010, there was an average of 294 incidents of violence per month. The data indicates that violence increased in three key areas: prisoner-on-staff violence, prisoner-on-prisoner violence and institutional disturbances.

However, according to TDOC spokeswoman Dorinda Carter, this rise in violence is not as consequential as HRDC would like people to believe. In a statement, she writes that the rate of change in violent incidents in Tennessee prisons is not statistically significant. “While some critics may contend the steps have led to escalating violence in prisons, data points to the contrary,” she said.

Nonetheless, there were more victims of violence during that time period, and for HRDC, the reason for the increase in incidents of violence seems clear.

In January 2001, Governor Bill Haslam appointed a new TDOC commissioner, Derrick Schofield, who instituted a series of new policies related to prisoner behavior. These changes included: requiring inmates to line up and stand outside no matter the weather conditions to wait for their turn to enter the dining facility; forcing prisoners to leave their hands out of their pockets during cold weather and not offering them gloves; daily cell inspections; and new restrictions on the kinds of property prisoners may have and the kinds of arts activities in which they can participate. During most of these activities, prisoners are prohibited from speaking.

Schofield says these new enhanced security measures—or transformations, as he calls them—will make it easier for inmates when they are released.

“Transforming program services builds offender accountability while providing an opportunity to change. The results can be lower rates of return to prison and increased positive contributions to their communities,” Schofield said in a statement. “Strengthening security, developing a more sustainable mechanism for program delivery, and creating a consistent manner of handling offenders from admission to community supervision have been at the forefront of our agency’s reorganization.”

HRDC writes in its letter to Schofield that these “militaristic” policy changes may be leading to the increase in violence, as people incarcerated become frustrated with what they perceive to be punitive, and not preventative, measures.

“We believe that the policy changes you have implemented may have significant unintended consequences,” the organization wrote. “[I]f the policy changes are intended to improve safety and security at TDOC facilities, they may be having the exact opposite effect.”

HRDC also points to national research that shows these tactics do not help prevent recidivism. “Research by the National Institute of Justice, among other agencies, has found that boot camp type programs generally fail to reduce recidivism. This is in part because the strict discipline and militaristic policies imposed during incarceration are absent after prisoners are released, when they return to an unstructured environment.”

HRDC adds that it is not alone in its concerns. “At least four wardens have resigned or retired since you were appointed Commissioner, some due to the implementation of your new policies,” the organization said.

HRDC contends that even if Schofield is right about his claims, his plans have yet to decrease violence in Tennessee’s prisons.

“Questions that need to be answered include why levels of violence are increasing, whether that increase is a result of the new policies implemented by Commissioner Schofield, and if not, what is behind the escalating violence. Also, most importantly, why the Commissioner apparently has been unable to curb violence in state prisons, particularly against staff,” said Alex Friedmann, HRDC associate director, who served time in Tennessee prisons in the 1990s
prior to his release in 1999.

TDOC maintains that its new standards are not only the way to go, but are being developed into a national model. “The Department [of Correction] is making good progress in building a set of procedures that will become national industry standards and have the greatest potential for both taxpayer savings and successful outcomes,” spokeswoman Carter wrote.

HRDC is requesting that Schofield sit down with HRDC and other organizations to discuss the impact of his new policies, a request he has yet to accept. The organization also seeks to increase government oversight of TDOC. In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly dissolved the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections, leaving supervision
to the Governor’s office and the time-consumed Judiciary Committee.