Budget Cuts Threaten Prison Guard Safety - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Budget Cuts Threaten Prison Guard Safety

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Tennessee Correction Commissioner George Little Tennessee Correction Commissioner George Little

Correction officers have one of the most dangerous jobs in state government.

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation questions whether budget cuts are putting prison guards at risk.

A review of log books and staffing levels uncovered how some prisons may ignore their own policies.

For example, one officer worked on duty in areas where the prison said two are required. This practice could have deadly results.

A previous investigation revealed how corrections officer Michael Church nearly died after an inmate attacked him at the Nashville's Charles Bass Correctional Complex.

He was working alone. His case is similar to that of correctional officer Fredrich Hyatt. Inmates killed him in 2003 while he worked alone in another high-security area.

After Church's beating, NewsChannel 5 uncovered a memo in which the warden ordered shift supervisors "to ensure that two officers are always present on Guild 4 and 7." These were the two areas where Church and Hyatt worked.

"How important is it to have two officers in those guilds on first and second shift?" asked investigative reporter Ben Hall.

"I would say it's very important," said Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner George Little.

The investigation uncovered documents that show officers how still work alone in dangerous parts of the prison in violation of the department's own policy.

"I want people to know they are severely short staffed. I'm in fear of my husband's safety," said a woman whose identity was not revealed.

She wanted her face hidden during the broadcast because she said her husband needs his job. 

"He comes home from work and says, 'I'm in guilds that are supposed to be two-man guilds' and he was by himself," she said.

The investigation reviewed documents that show over the last two months at least 11 shifts had only one officer.

"It says here there should be two officers. Have things changed now?" Hall asked.

"On four, we still want two officers there," Little said. "On seven, there is some flexibility."

Even with the new flexibility, NewsChannel 5's investigation raises questions about whether supervisors are accurately reporting staffing levels. 

An entry on June 10 in the corrections officer log book said Tom Wilson was the only officer on post.  But NewsChannel 5 found three other entries such as that in a two-month period.

Yet, the rosters filled out by supervisors for the exact same shifts show two officers on duty.

"This person is trying to tell you something when he writes ‘I'm on post by myself tonight,'" said Capt. Gary Hardcastle.

He retired from Charles Bass after 28 years.  He said corrections officers don't trust supervisors to accurately report that officers are working alone.

"Overall it looks like they still have as many vacancies as when I was there and they're still manipulating the shift rosters," he said.

After hearing about discrepancies between what officers wrote and supervisors reported, Little said, "The shift logs can vary in quality and quantity of information. It just depends on who is making the entries.

"I'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they're honest mistakes."

But he admits there is a statewide shortage of correction officers. 

And it isn't getting better.  State budget cuts forced the department to cut positions.

109 security officers took the state buyout offer.

"They're not many more positions we can give without some fundamental changes in the way we do business," he said.

That may mean closing prisons. It's hard to hire officers when the starting salary is just about 22 thousand a year.

"It concerns me a lot as a wife and a parent that my husband might not come home," said a wife of a corrections officer.  The low pay leads to an incredibly high turnover rate. At Charles Bass, more than half the officers who started work a year ago have already left the job. 

That makes it hard to keep the prison staffed.

The state said because more than 100 security officers took the state buyout offer that it reduced the number of available prison beds.  The state closed part of the Morgan County prison.

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