The recent series of events affecting the lives of officers working within the Tennessee Department of Correction has TSEA very concerned about officer safety within the department.
In early April, three officers were stabbed multiple times at Turney Center Industrial Complex during what the department called a disturbance. Officers Lester Ball, Jesse Shockley, and Paul Nielson were that night all taken by helicopter to a local hospital. By the end of the week, all three officers were released from the hospital.
The incident began around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, and involved 16 inmates. According to the Department, Officers Ball and Nelson were removed from the area immediately. However, inmates held Officer Shockley hostage for three hours until TDOC’s Special Operations Unit regained control of the situation. All 16 inmates were relocated to Morgan County Correctional Complex, a Maximum security facility.
The following day, TSEA released this statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured correctional officers and their families at this time,” TSEA President Bryan Merritt said. “This is the unfortunate threat our correctional officers face every day. They train for the worst and always hope for the best. Our officers and the department work to make the prisons as safe as possible, but they are dealing with a very volatile population who are unpredictable at times.”
TSEA also visited the victims of the assault in the hospital and will be working with the Department of Correction to address the issues that led to these vicious assaults and the hostage situation.
In late March we also learned from an internal TDOC memo that three correctional officers within TDOC died by suicide in March.
“We appreciate the tough and stressful job these state employees do every single day, and the risk they take on to keep the public safe, and we are doing everything we can to help,” Merritt said.
TSEA has historically advocated for better pay, improving scheduling, and addressing safety conditions for our correctional officers.
TSEA this year filed two legislative bills to address issues within TDOC. While both bills were eventually taken off notice for various reasons, TSEA remains committed to helping our TDOC employees and will continue to peruse this legislation next year.
We were pleased to hear Commissioner Tony Parker tell a legislative committee that TDOC is evaluating all options when it comes to officer scheduling.
Commissioner Parker during a May 10 presentation to the Senate State and Local Government Corrections Subcommittee said the following about employee scheduling:
“TDOC has to continue to look at possible ways to improve scheduling. … Currently, we’re looking at all options. The old 40-hour work week schedule, we’re looking at the possibility of that, we’re looking at the possibility of the 12-hour schedule on a 14-day work cycle, and we’re looking at the current 28-day cycle. We want to evaluate all options. This time we have a good block of data that we can take and evaluate. We recognize that not everybody likes the 28-day schedule, and that has to be in the equation when you consider other options. The 28-day schedule allows for flexibility in scheduling. It gives you more time to reduce overtime cost. But you also have to consider the employee’s preference in some cases as to what schedule best works for them, because they have lives too. We want to recognize that. We want to try to find the best case scenario for the facilities. I think we are on the right track in considering those options and should have some other decisions later on in the summer.”
These comments by the commissioner were the first time we’ve heard TDOC state publically that the old 40-hour work week was again being considered as a scheduling option, and that they recognize that correctional officers have lives outside of work. This was encouraging and shows the department has adjusted their stance on this issue.
We will continue to communicate and work with Commissioner Tony Parker, his staff, and the legislature on the need to address all of these issues.
By Chris Dauphin
TSEA Communications Director