HARTSVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Edwin Steakley has never denied he was guilty. From the moment he was first arrested on an aggravated robbery charge in 2012, Edwin knew he would end up paying the price.
But after spending more than a year inside Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tennessee, this 39-year-old man is speaking about the horror he says goes on behind the walls of this private, for-profit prison.
“When I close my eyes, I see a lot of pain. I have trouble sleeping, trouble eating. There’s just a lot of pain,” Edwin said, pausing between long deep breathes.
The deep anxiety this man was feeling, was evident with every word he struggled to speak.
“I was looked upon as a number, as a paycheck, that’s how I feel,” he said.
Management of Trousdale is outsourced to the Nashville-based privately-run company CoreCivic. Of the 14 prisons the Tennessee Department of Corrections owns across the state only four are managed by CoreCivic.
Through a series of interviews with prisoners and family members of former prisoners, NewsChannel 5 spent months documenting why some state lawmakers say prisons for profit in Tennessee are not working.
Prior to his arrival at Trousdale Turner, Steakley was first housed in Morgan County. While there, he found out his mother had breast cancer and requested a transfer to Trousdale County, the same county he grew up in. From the time he arrived at the prison, he says he was preyed upon because of his Jewish faith.
“It was an atmosphere of a lot of tension. You’re constantly on lockdown 24/7. They would be understaffed, and guards would often have to work two shifts,” Steakley said.
That statement was largely substantiated by a 2017 audit performed by the Tennessee State Comptroller . The audit found Trousdale Turner had “unstaffed critical posts on several days, ” detailed numerous instances when CoreCivic was in “noncompliance with contract requirements,” which impacted, “the department’s ability to effectively monitor the private prison.”
In a statement, emailed to NewsChannel 5, CoreCivic said they have addressed those concerns.
“Staffing was a challenge for several reasons," spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said via email. "First, the Middle Tennessee labor market was very competitive, which made hiring a challenge for public and private facilities alike…In response, we strengthened our employee recruiting efforts at Trousdale Turner by significantly increasing wages and bonuses, which has already led to a 24% reduction in staff turnover from 2017."
Edwin Steakley does not need a state audit to tell him about the issues at the CoreCivic facility.
He lived them first hand.
“My cellmate started making sexual remarks toward me, so I wrote out, I told case managers, the Sergeant on duty, I even told my mental health therapist and she said, ‘that’s how men talk,” Steakley said as the color seemed to drain from his face.
Documents submitted to the Tennessee Department of Corrections show Steakley first reported his concerns about being raped on January 20, 2018. Then again on January 21, 22, 23 and 24 – no action was taken by either CoreCivic or TDOC officials.
Less than a month later, in the middle of the night on February 20th, Edwin Steakley was raped by his cellmate. Documents submitted to CoreCivic detail a horrifying rape in which Steakley was forced to perform oral sex on another man in the middle of the night, as a shank was held to his throat and his life was threatened.
“Do you know how that’ll make a person feel? To wake up to that?” Steakley said, breaking down into tears.
“He said, ‘suck my d--- or die.' " At this point, Edwin got up from the chair he as sitting in, unable to catch his breath. When he sat back down and composed himself, he continued, “Do you know how much courage it took for me to stand up? To even come forward and admit something like that?”
“Yeah, we all committed a crime, we’re all guilty…We’re still human, we still breathe the same air you breathe, we still have a heart that beats,” he said, barely containing his tears.
While CoreCivic denied requests for an interview, they did address Steakley’s alleged sexual assault:
“CoreCivic examined all reports of sexual abuse filed at Trousdale Turner while he was incarcerated there," Gilchrist said. "Mr. Steakley was found to have made one report, which was investigated, and the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated. No other reports of sexual abuse were filed by Mr. Steakley during his incarceration at Trousdale Turner."
Documents provided to NewsChannel 5 by Steakley’s attorney, though, show he filed multiple grievances over the course of a month.
Steakley currently has a lawsuit pending against CoreCivic.
Paying the ultimate price
It is hard to escape the sadness that seems to hang over the Anderson family home just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bill and Teresa Anderson have dealt with more than their fair share of grief over the last few years. Heartache, they say, that is only compounded because some of Tennessee’s prisons are run for profit.
“It is morally and ethically wrong to be making a profit off of people in prison,” Teresa Anderson said.
All along the walls of Anderson's home are pictures of with picture of her children, including her son Ross Anderson. Ross ended up at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center back in 2017 after being convicted of killing his Rachael Johnson and her 5-year-old son Colton.
The horrific murder occurred just a few doors down from Ross’s childhood home where his parents still live. “We will forever be the parents of a murder, forever, and there’s no erasing that,” Teresa said as she clutched a picture of her son in her hands.
For years, the Anderson’s say their son was dealing with a multitude of mental health issues from schizophrenia to severe depression. They do not make any excuses for the crimes their son committed nor are they looking for any kind of pity.
But what they do want, is to bring awareness to what they say are unsafe conditions inside of Trousdale Turner.
“There was no mental health care there, there was nothing. Our son is the face of everything that is wrong with the mental health system in this state and the prison system in this state,” Teresa said passionately.
Deep down, this mother says she knew that once her son was convicted and sent to prison, he was not going to make it out alive.
She was right. On December 6, 2018, inside of his cell at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, Ross Anderson committed suicide. It was the third anniversary of his girlfriend’s murder.
The 34-year-old had hung himself with a pair of jeans.
“It happened on their watch. That’s what bothers me the most. I can’t stand my own thoughts some days, thinking about him dying in a place like that, alone where no one loved him or cared about it,” she said as teared rolled across her cheeks.
Both Teresa and Bill Anderson though say they believe their son would still likely be alive if Trousdale Turner was not managed by CoreCivic, a company which last year reported a total revenue of $482 million dollars. “How can it be okay to make a profit off other people’s misery and mistakes?" Teresa said. "It’s immoral and unethical. "
In response to Ross Anderson’s suicide, CoreCivic’s spokeswoman said, “When an incarcerated person takes their own life, the sense of loss reverberates through family members, fellow inmates and facility staff. Our government partners are immediately notified, and there is a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
Lawmakers question contract with CoreCivic
That 2017 audit found that the Trousdale facility had 66 documented incidents of noncompliance that resulted in CoreCivic being fined more than $2.5 million. This year, the number was 26.
CoreCivic says they are constantly working to address issues at all four of their prisons in Tennessee.
“We’ve taken the challenges at Trousdale Turner very seriously, and we’ve worked hard to address them. The fact that the facility earned a 95% score on its most recent TDOC audit is a testament to that effort,” Gilchrist said in response to questions submitted by NewsChannel 5.
Still though some lawmakers question why the state continues to pay CoreCivic millions of dollars a year when their track record is less than perfect.
The issue of resigning another contract with CoreCivic came to a tipping point at the state Capitol in December 2018. When asked whether the contract with CoreCivic should be ended, TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said, “I have found the vendor, CoreCivic, they work well with us to try to correct these issues.”
Still, some lawmakers at that hearing seemed dissatisfied with the progress the company is making.
“We have to step up in my opinion,” Janice Bowling, a Republican Senator from Tullahoma, said.
Both Teresa and Bill Anderson were present at the hearing. BIll Anderson testified, detailing his son's suicide. Three minutes into that testimony, was cut off by Republican Chairman Mike Bell.
Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville, quickly shot back. “I’m done until someone in this committee wants to step up! We’re always in a hurry. We do nothing again, and again, and again, and we send these people home!” Rep. Mitchell said, his voiced raised nearly to the point of yelling.
In the end, CoreCivic’s contract was resigned. They will continue to manage four state facilities including Trousdale for the foreseeable future.
Read CoreCivic's full response to NewsChannel 5 below: