Tennessee lawmakers are planning to reauthorize the state Department of Correction for four more years, despite lingering concerns about for-profit prisons and problems at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center.
Reversing a threat made late last year, members of the House Government Operations Committee are moving toward giving the Department of Correction a full extension of its mandate. Under Tennessee law, all state agencies receive a periodic review, during which time the state comptroller conducts an audit and legislators consider whether to change its mission.
Sometimes, these "sunset reviews" can prompt lawmakers to weigh major changes. That was the case in December, when the Government Operations Committee took up the latest audit from the Department of Correction.
It found major staffing shortages at Trousdale Turner, which is run by the Nashville-based company, CoreCivic. Lawmakers also heard testimony from people who'd worked at the prison and their families, detailing deaths, abuse and other problems.
That prompted legislators to threaten to give the Department of Correction only a one-year extension.
Now, they're backtracking. The committee's chairman, state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, says he's come to believe the issues at Trousdale Turner are too complex to solve by attacking the department.
"We've mess up, and a part of me wonders have we (been) messed up by the people who would like to see us incarcerate as many people as possible," he says. "We have more people behind bars than any country in the world, and I can see a systemic problem with that.
Faison recommends a full extension, but he says he'll demand regular progress reports from the Department of Correction and promised to hold another hearing if more problems emerge.
And, he adds, he wants to open a debate over for-profit prisons.
"Unfortunately there have been problems with the Department of Correction for the past 20 years, and I daresay, if you went back and looked at most of the problems we've had, they've been with our for-profit prisons," he says. "And shame on the ruling class, 20 years ago, to have allowed that to take place.
"That being said, this is not the bill to fix that."