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No solution in sight for NECX staffing, safety fears

By Tate Davis
Freelance Writer

An editorial note: Several attendees expressed fear of retaliation, and TDOC executives expressed safety concerns about revealing certain aspects of facility security patterns. The Tomahawk respects these requests while fairly reporting what happened.
An estimated seventy-five current and former Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) staff turned out at the Crewette building in Mountain City on September 30 to meet with State Representative Scotty Campbell last week to address the working conditions and safety concerns at the state prison. 
The facility is currently operating at more than 95 percent of capacity, housing 1,620 inmates. In social media posts, Campbell invited workers “to come and be heard.” “This is my meeting, here with you,” Campbell said. “I want you to speak your mind. I’m serious.” 
To those concerned about retaliation for speaking up, Campbell said, “How can they fire you when they don’t have enough people to work already?”
The comment put things in perspective right off the bat as the emotionally charged meeting commenced. 
Campbell emphasized that he called the meeting after “hearing that we have a dangerous situation. You are understaffed to the point that somebody will die.” 
“I’ve seen the place get extremely more violent in the past six months,” one officer said, while another observed, “One question that you’ve got to ask yourself a lot of times is, ‘Is anyone going to come to help me?’ It’s not that anyone wouldn’t come to help you. It’s the fact that there isn’t anyone to come help you.” 
Still, another officer remarked, “If you’ve got a problem and you need help, they don’t have anyone to send up there. Nobody.”
Some worried about the lack of a functional Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) present inside the prison at all times. These teams typically consist of officers specially trained and equipped to respond to high-risk situations, including riots, shakedowns for contraband, and security extractions of violent inmates. 
To keep operating, staff say they are being pushed beyond their physical and mental limits. “You just hope somebody walks in and relieves you at this point,” one officer told Representative Campbell. “Sometimes you’re just left out there with not even a phone call.” 
NECX security staff are typically assigned to work 12-hour shifts on an alternating schedule of 3 days during one week; 4 the next. But many claim they are frequently working 14 and 16-hour days whenever they report to the prison. Sometimes the extra work goes for days on end, with some reportedly working 60, 70, and even 80 or more hours. 
Taking a turn to speak, Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor said, “What I really find compelling and troubling is these young [parents] are going to work, not knowing if they’re going to come home. They might be scheduled to come home at six o’clock, but they might not come home until midnight or the next morning. It becomes a childcare issue. It’s a widespread problem. Not just the danger that these men and women are in and facing every day on their jobs.”
But things got even more emotional when one man in attendance said, “You get extorted to work over or threatened essentially with retribution if you don’t stay.” He accused supervisors of retaliating against complainers by assigning them to some of the most dangerous posts in the compound “as punishment for not staying over the day before.”
Campbell asked who was behind the threats. “Captains, Lieutenants, Shift Commanders all threaten the writeups,” the speaker replied. 
Many criticized the way the Department handles assaults on staff. “There is staff that has been assaulted that was actually blamed for the assault like it was the officer’s fault.” 
Lee R. Dotson, Assistant Commissioner of Prisons, talked about recent efforts to bring back retired officers and other qualified state personnel to provide temporary relief. “We’re looking at how we can hire folks part-time and meet the training standards so that they can come in safely and help protect you,” he said. “I want to get folks to come in and start helping out during critical times.” 
With results to date lackluster, Campbell remarked, “Nothing is happening fast enough.”
The idea of moving some TDOC inmates into county jails was briefly floated, but Dotson said, “I can’t transfer inmates back to the county jail. The law won’t allow me to do that. But, as folks are convicted and sentenced, we can look at that.”
As to what scenario should Northeast Correctional Complex be locked down, attendees answered in unison, “Right now.” 
While empathizing with staff, Commissioner Dotson said, “The warden has the authority to run the prison the way he wants to run the prison,” at which point, Campbell interjected, “I don’t think a lot of people are happy with that,” drawing some cheers from the crowd.
One lady pleaded, “I’m not asking for months and months on lockdown. We’re tired. Give us a break. Give us a week. Give us time to be at home with our families and get off on time.” 
It was unclear whether Northeast Correctional Complex Warden Bert C. Boyd might grant requests for a facility lockdown. 
Prompted by Campbell to comment, Boyd said, “Right now, we’re on restricted movement. We can go on lockdown. When we go on lockdown, [inmates] have no education. You have no inmates working…all the burden of keeping those inmates, cleaning, all of that stuff goes on the staff.”
The Tomahawk reached out to TDOC Public Information Officer Robert Reburn for statistics on staffing. Despite several claiming the “vacancy rate” is running over 50 percent, Reburn reported there are currently 232 NECX security staff officers and 89 unfilled positions, leaving the facility with a 28 percent vacancy rate. Reburn said 20 staff members are currently on medical leave.
Perhaps the most emotional moment came when Mayor Taylor challenged the TDOC officials, saying, “What can you tell these men and women that are going to go
back to their shift tomorrow about what you, or the warden, or whomever else, is going to do to make their job safer?”
“The one thing that’s going to make it safer is if we can increase staffing,” Dotson replied.
“So, what you are saying,” Taylor pressed, “is that tomorrow, nothing is going to change. These people are going to go back to the same jobs, the same dangers, and there’s nothing planned to make this better?”
In closing remarks, Dotson offered, “We don’t have a way to thank you enough for what you do… What I want to ask of you is help me hire some folks.”
Whether it is staffing, policy, or changes in leadership, it is safe to say that the ongoing drama at NECX is nowhere closer to a solution.
Campbell summed up his view about the facility as well as the meeting he called to order when he said in part, “The meeting made it clear Northeast Correctional Complex is way worse than I had heard…and frankly, there seems to be no relief in sight…This prison clearly has a leadership issue. 
Campbell has promised to “continue to work to find ways to get the staff relief.”
For more information
about Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) 5249 Highway 67 West, Mountain City, TN, please visit www.tn.gov/correction/sp/state-prison-list.