MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Northeast Correctional Complex in Johnson County has suffered from severe staffing issues. Monday, Representative Scotty Campbell said he was shocked by the testimonies of current and former correctional officers and workers.
Prison workers told Campbell that the shortages are making the job more dangerous. Workers have been working long shifts, in some cases up to 24 hours, putting them through mental exhaustion.
“You have a complex in crisis here. You have staff that feel unsafe,” Campbell said. “You have a great need to get this situation fixed as soon as we possibly can.”
Campbell said officers told him an officer had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed returning from a shift.
He said some one officer described a situation in which a broomstick was used to lock a door between officers and prisoners. Others told him about severe injuries within the workplace inflicted upon both workers and inmates.
“When you’re talking a broomstick in place of a doorlock, 12-24 hour shifts with no relief, that’s a problem,” Campbell said. “These people deserve a better situation.”
Many of those workers are not speaking out about conditions publicly because they fear punishment from prison administration, Campbell said.
As of last week, there were 232 security staff for 1,620 inmates. There were 89 security staff vacancies.
Bubba Cannon was a correctional officer at the complex until he left the profession due to a medical issue. When he left in 2005, officers would typically work an 8 hour shift before getting relieved. Campbell said officers are now forced to stay until the next worker comes in, leading to the exhaustingly long shifts.
Cannon said the long shifts wear out officers because of the stressful nature of the job.
“You’re on the edge of your senses at all times,” Cannon said. “You’re worried about, “am I or an inmate going to be hurt?” That will wear you down fast.”
The Tennessee Department of Corrections has increased efforts to bring in enough workers to cover the shortage. New programs targeted retired law enforcement officers for part-time roles. A $5,000 signing bonus was made available for new hires.
The department said it is confident those efforts can help bring in new workers, but Cannon said those efforts do little to retain the existing workforce.
“People that worked there 20 years, knowing that if they work 10 more they can retire, saying ‘I’m gone. I’m not doing this,'” said Cannon. “I personally don’t want anybody working there right now, because I fear for their life.”
Campbell said he has taken the issue to the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections this week.
“I made it very clear that the officers here feel unsafe and that many people believe that there is a leadership issue at this complex,” Campbell said.
The governor’s office could not provide comment at this time.