MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Correctional officers and workers at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Johnson County told a local state representative and Department of Corrections officials they are tired and beaten down due to short staffing.
Dozens of workers filled the Johnson City Rescue Squad building in Mountain City to have their thoughts heard by State Rep. Scotty Campbell and Department of Corrections Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Lee Dotson Thursday afternoon.
The department is trying to bring new workers in for full and part-time roles with little success so far. Meanwhile, workers are leaving the complex because of understaffing putting them in exhausting and sometimes dangerous situations.
Dotson said the department is doing that with efforts to bring in retired state troopers and local/state law enforcement officers in for 120-day temporary jobs. Those officers would serve in a support role.
That program has resulted in just one retired state trooper being hired. Dotson said the program for local and state officers is still new.
Another effort involved bringing in retired prison workers for part-time roles. The department is also looking internally for workers that could be moved to the Northeast complex.
Dotson said those efforts should result in a safer working environment.
“We want to get our numbers up because we want our folks to feel safe when they come to work,” Dotson said. “By increasing our staffing, I think that’ll help a lot.”
The department also offering $5,000 signing bonuses for new employees and retention bonuses for those choosing to stay.
Campbell said those efforts were a short-term fix and that a lot more needed to be done.
“We’ve got to see more training, more recruitment, better morale, a better environment,” Campbell said. “That’s going to take us awhile to get into that posture.”
Troy Potter was a 22-year veteran of the Northeast complex. He left last November after working shifts as long as 16 hours several days in a row.
“I would’ve loved to make it until 30, but mentally I don’t think I could do it,” Potter said.
Potter said efforts to recruit new workers have been difficult because prison administration has been slow to support current workers. Some workers said they’ve faced punishment for not being able to take on more hours.
Short staffing has plagued the complex. Some in attendance said the facility has less than 50 percent of the workers it needs to function properly. Several said they feel threatened at work because they have a numbers disadvantage against inmates.
One corrections officer told Campbell and Dotson about a situation in which officers were heavily outnumbered by inmates, some with knives. The officer declined to speak outside of the public forum out of fear of retribution from superiors.
“Tell me how you’re going to get the morale up to get people to come in there when we get treated like that day in, day out,” he said.
Several workers called on Warden Bert Boyd to institute a lockdown to keep inmate activity down.