NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee corrections officials have fined a private prison company $43,750 because of problems it had counting inmates at a jail it operates, according to state documents.
The state Department of Correction levied the penalty against CoreCivic in May over breach of contract due to the woes at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium-security lockup in Hartsville that holds up to 2,552 male inmates, a letter released in a public records request shows.
The letter says the counting problems were noted there in January and persisted into April. They were among 66 non-compliance issues found at the facility in a state audit, four of which were deemed critical. A June follow-up found the issues were addressed.
According to state reports, officers weren’t counting correctly; inmates weren’t in the correct cells; and, in most cases, only one worker was counting inmates without another standing watch. The reports also said it was taking too long for officers to count and inmates were allowed to move around during count time.
Some staffers weren’t grasping the importance of the inmate count, including a teacher who argued with a state inspector that it’s not fair her inmates can’t leave the classroom to use the bathroom during count time, one report said. In one instance, an officer appeared to be counting while he passed out breakfast trays, it says.
The sections of the documents about counting are largely redacted to protect critical security procedures, said Department of Correction spokeswoman Alison Randgaard. One section says Trousdale staffers “knew what to do” but “just were not doing it correctly.”
Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the prisoner-rights publication Prison Legal News, said state corrections officials rarely fine private prison companies, so when fines are imposed, it’s usually for very serious or repeated contractual violations.
“Count is one of the most important functions that prison officials perform – it verifies the number of inmates and detects escapes,” Friedmann said. “The failure to adequately perform one of the most basic security functions of a correctional facility speaks volumes about CCA’s ability to operate TTCC.”
Randgaard reiterated the state’s confidence in CoreCivic, saying the Department of Correction has numerous accountability checks in place, including state staff at the facility daily, periodic audits and increased accountability checks to track improvements.
“Through these mechanisms, we have seen marked improvement and are confident in our partnership with CoreCivic and the services provided at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center,” Randgaard said.
Company spokesman Jonathan Burns says Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, welcomes the accountability of working with governments.
“We take any noted concerns very seriously, and work closely with our government partner to address them,” Burns said.
In spring 2016, just a few months after Trousdale opened that January, the facility temporarily halted admissions to the prison, leaving it about two-thirds full. Among several issues at the time was incorrect inmate counting, according to state documents.
The facility reached its capacity in September 2016 and housed 2,524 inmates on average in August, state records show.