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Tennessee DOC Faulted for High Staff Vacancy and Turnover, Inadequate Programs, PREA Violations

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Division of State Audit released a performance audit of the state Department of Correction (DOC) on December 12, 2023. Covering a four-year period ending the previous July 31, 2023, the audit found significant deficiencies at the DOC’s 10 state prisons, plus four more operated under contract by private prison giant CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corp. of America). The most serious problems identified related to understaffing, lack of sufficient rehabilitative programs and violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

Regarding staffing, auditors found both DOC and CoreCivic facilities faced “an ongoing and deeply rooted challenge of attrition” of employees. Overall, DOC prisons averaged a 30% vacancy rate for security staff in 2023, while the rate for CoreCivic was even worse: 42%. State officials assessed $10.8 million in liquidated damages against CoreCivic from July 2020 to June 2022 for failing to meet required staffing levels.

Staff vacancies went hand-in-hand with employee turnover, averaging 37% for security staff at DOC facilities in 2023. CoreCivic lockups averaged an astounding 146% turnover rate; the highest rate at any state prison, 188% was recorded at the company’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center (TTCC). The company’s contract with DOC sets its maximum turnover rate at just 50%.

To address staffing and retention problems, prison officials have increased job advertising and recruitment efforts like job fairs. Starting guard pay has risen to about $44,500 annually, and there is a $5,000 sign-on bonus, a $1,000 recruitment bonus and a $4,000 retention bonus for employees at DOC facilities. CoreCivic has offered $3,000 referral bonuses. Auditors noted that “[v]acancy and turnover rates touch upon the fundamental aspects of safety, security, rehabilitation, operational efficiency, financial stability, public perception, legal compliance, and recruiting” in state prisons.

Based on five site visits conducted in 2023, the auditors found three prisons were unable to staff more than 40% of assigned posts; TTCC failed to staff 57% of posts, including 20% designated “critical”. Due to high staff vacancies and turnover rates, overtime is regularly used to fill security positions; DOC paid $51.4 million in overtime from 2022 to 2023, including an “augmentee program” that allows employees who are not guards to volunteer to fill vacant guard posts at overtime rates. Tellingly, the auditors determined that if DOC hired enough staff to fill the 662 guard positions currently vacant statewide, the annual cost would be $3.4 million less than its expenditures on overtime. Almost 90% of TDOC employees worked overtime in 2023.

The report raised particular concerns about the state-operated Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) due to high rates of staff vacancies (over 60%) and turnover (37%). Auditors found that NWCX had “heightened operational and cultural risks, including serious safety concerns” due to understaffing—including security vulnerabilities, unit-wide lockdowns, and limited staff to respond to emergencies; during a site visit, the guard escorting auditors had to leave them alone and unprotected when he responded to a medical code.

Further, the report found that due to “limited capacity and lengthy waitlists,” many prisoners could not access rehabilitative and reentry programs such as ABE/GED classes,

cognitive behavior (CBIP) and therapeutic community (TC) programs, as well as college coursework. For example, CBIP had a capacity of 695, but a waitlist of 8,581 prisoners; the TC program had capacity for 1,264 and a waitlist of 2,683. TTCC had the longest waitlists for these programs. The lengthy waits meant some prisoners were released before enrolling in or completing rehabilitative programs. Notably, unlike state prisons, CoreCivic lockups do not offer college classes or group therapy.

Some prisoners are also released without adequate reentry services, auditors reported, so they leave prison without vital documents that DOC policy requires them to be given, such as birth certificates and state-issued IDs.

One of the most troubling findings was that DOC staff failed to ensure that annual PREA screenings were conducted to prevent sexual abuse. At both state and CoreCivic prisons, potential sexual aggressors were celled with potential sexual abuse victims, in violation of PREA standards. The audit identified 34 inappropriately housed prisoners, including 26 at CoreCivic facilities. Though DOC received 659 PREA allegations between July 2021 and April 2023, proper investigations were not always conducted. In 15 cases, CoreCivic employees closed sexual abuse investigations before receiving rape kit results. Additionally, a sample review of PREA case files found one or more mistakes in 28 of 120—a 23% error rate. Another review of 28 substantiated PREA allegations involving prisoner-on-prisoner sexual misconduct found 74% of aggressors did not receive disciplinary sanctions. In four substantiated cases of PREA violations by staff members, prison officials “either did not take disciplinary action” or failed to document action that was taken.

Other problems identified included insufficient staffing by DOC’s private medical services contractor, Centurion of Tennessee, LLC. Between January 2020 and November 2022, state officials assessed $5.7 million in liquidated damages against the company for staff vacancies that violated its contract. Staff at two CoreCivic prisons also could not show that prisoners received their prescribed medications; a sample inspection found no such documentation in 32% of the medical files reviewed.

Since DOC was operating at 91.4% of its 20,503-bed capacity, auditors said that 3,149 “inactive” beds should be considered for use by thousands of state prisoners held in county jails. They also called for replacement of DOC’s antiquated electronic prisoner management system, a process that state officials said is pending. Auditors also said that DOC had failed to remediate deficiencies identified in its annual Financial Integrity Act Risk Assessments.

To address staffing and other issues that auditors cited, DOC is currently seeking a $9 million increase to its $1.3 billion annual budget; $7 million of that is slated for CoreCivic. See: TDOC Performance Audit Report by Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Treasury (Dec. 2023).


Additional Source: The Tennessean