WSMV broke the news of this trend last night in a story featuring Alex Friedmann, a longtime prisoners' rights advocate and private prison critic, who on behalf of the HRDC provided data that reveals a steady 18.3 percent increase in violent incidents per 1,000 prisoners between 2010 and the first six months of 2012.
Friedmann maintains that the surge in violence corresponds with the appointment of TDOC Commisioner Derrick Schofield, a Haslam Administration pick, whom Friedmann alleges is operating with "virtually no oversight and is running his own show."
In a press release [PDF] dated today, the HRDC cites a number of policies implemented by Schofield that they believe are responsible for creating conditions conducive to violence within Tennessee's prisons.
• Prisoners are required to walk in a single-file line under staff escort on the compound, a specified distance apart, and are not allowed to talk.
• Prisoners are not allowed to have their hands in their pockets while under escort, even during cold weather, and the TDOC has not issued gloves to all prisoners.
• Daily cell inspections are held in which prisoners have to stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected.
• Property rules have been repeatedly changed, and property items that prisoners were previously allowed to own have been prohibited.
• When prisoners are called to meals they are required to line up and wait outside until it is their turn to go to the dining hall; when it is raining they must stand in the rain.
• Arts and crafts programs have been curtailed at some facilities, including in-cell arts and crafts; also, access to musical instruments has been restricted.
• Most recently, prisoners are required to be standing by their bunks in their cells during the morning count, which is held at 5:00am to 6:00am; this was never done previously.
Also in the release, Friedmann notes the June, 2011 dissolution of the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections, and the resulting shift in prison oversight to the office of Gov. Bill Haslam and legislative judiciary committees: “Both Governor Haslam and the chairpersons of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees were notified of rising levels of violence in Tennessee state prisons in March 2012, including increased violence against staff; they received copies of a letter that was sent to Commissioner Schofield to that effect," Friedmann is quoted as saying. "However, they expressed no interest."
In a statement responding to the allegations, Commissioner Scholfield told WSMV, "This department's policies are focused on building accountability and changing behavior."