Who Watches The Inmates? - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Who Watches The Inmates?

Terry Coffey Terry Coffey

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

A NewsChannel 5 investigation is raising questions about the oversight of inmates who work for the state.

One state department is ending its use of inmate labor after an employee admitted to having sex with an inmate.

Approximately 700 inmates a month work for the state outside prison.

But our investigation found state employees concerned about how closely inmates are watched.

For years, Motor Vehicle Management used inmates to wash cars at its car lot on Charlotte Avenue.

But the Department of General Services is ending the use of inmate labor after Terry Coffey, 42, a dispatch clerk at the state car lot, was caught having sex with an inmate.

"That's very destructive. It's not only a crime, but it's wrong on many fronts," said Jason Woodall, director of internal affairs for the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Woodall's investigation determined that Coffey and the 28-year-old inmate would meet for sex in an office during Coffey's lunch hour.

The state is pushing for criminal charges.

"Ms. Coffey was very much an authority figure over this inmate," Woodall said.

Several years ago, the Department of Correction added a guard to oversee inmates at the motor vehicle lot after problems arose with prostitutes coming on the property.

But this year, state employees told investigators that one guard was not enough to monitor the 10 inmates working on the lot.

In transcripts of investigator interviews obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, one supervisor said, "I do believe the guards should also have accountability for this situation."

"Where was the guard" he asked, when the two were having sex?

The commissioner of the Department of Correction said one guard was enough to watch the inmates.

"I would still maintain that it's adequate supervision to have one officer for 10 inmates," Correction Commissioner Gayle Ray said.

But employee interviews paint a picture of unsupervised inmates.

Terry Coffey told investigators that inmates received alcohol, transported contraband in trash bags and even gambled by playing the numbers.

She said inmates claimed it happened at other state agencies as well.

Commissioner Ray responded, " I don't understand why if somebody saw that, they didn't report it. That was their responsibility to do so."

Prisons across the state are fighting an increased battle to keep out contraband like cell phones and drugs.

Inmates now work at more than a dozen state agencies including the Tennessee Highway Patrol Training Facility, several state parks and even at the Governor's Residence.

Commissioner Ray insisted that oversight at all those sites is not just up to the guards.

"It's kind of joint responsibility as far as the supervision goes," Ray said.

But that joint supervision does not always happen.

Just this past July, The Department of Transportation disciplined an employee for trying to solicit sexual favors from inmates and for giving them tobacco.

"Yes, there are going to be some incidents from time to time, but the benefits far outweigh those kinds of things," Commissioner Ray said.

This year, the Department of Correction estimates the state saved taxpayers more than $6 million because of inmate labor.

Even though the Department of General Services is ending inmate labor, plenty of other departments have no plans to stop the program.

The state is going back and making sure employees around inmates have received basic training about how to monitor and treat inmate workers.

Terry Coffey is still on the job.

She was suspended for 30 days. The state plans to turn the case over to the District Attorney for criminal prosecution.

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com 

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