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State corrections officials and the private prisons operator Corrections Corporation of America confirmed to the AP that the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center halted new admissions two weeks ago, leaving the 2500-inmate prison about two-thirds full.
A company spokesman on Tuesday blamed "growing pains." Both said the decision was made jointly.
"We're holding off on sending more prisoners until CCA has an opportunity to increase its recruiting efforts and staffing," Tennessee Department of Correction Assistant Commissioner Tony Parker told the AP.
The prison in Hartsville began receiving inmates in January, between 50 and 100 each week. By early March, its warden was replaced. CCA provided few details about the change of command.
But a March 17 report to Parker from his Correctional Administrator Tony Howerton, who observed the prison over two days, outlines a series of problems.
The memo — obtained by the AP through an open records request for public documents about the taxpayer-funded facility — says the guards were not in control of the housing units, were not counting inmates correctly and were putting inmates in solitary confinement for no documented reason.
"The Lieutenants, Captains and Unit Managers we observed on video and in the units this morning are not adequate. They do not have control of the housing units and it appears inmates are free to mingle around the unit at will," the memorandum states.
It also details problems with inmate counts not being conducted, taking too long, or in one case, miscounting a prisoner who had been moved to a different unit.
Regarding solitary confinement, Howerton writes, "We still have inmates being place in segregation with ... no explanation as to why they were ever placed in segregation."
Prison officials say segregated housing is not really solitary confinement because segregated prisoners can be housed with a roommate and have contact with staff, but critics say the conditions are similar, with inmates confined in isolated cells, often for 23 hours a day, with limited human interaction.
Another report, sent by a state corrections monitor to Howerton, details a Feb. 26 stabbing. The officer responsible for the housing unit where it happened "decides to walk downstairs and exit his unit leaving it unattended and leaving the unit door propped open." He returns four minutes later and "immediately sees blood on the floor throughout the entire unit."
"Whenever you are opening a new facility, there are issues," Parker said. "There are new staff and processes. It takes a while to get everything solidified."
Nashville-based CCA is the nation's largest private prison provider, operating 84 facilities nationwide housing about 70,000 inmates. Supporters say prison privatization is cheap and efficient. Critics say private corporations are not as accountable to the public as traditional state-run prisons.
Parker and CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns both said Trousdale is fully staffed, despite the need to increase recruiting and staffing. Parker referred specific questions about staffing to CCA, but the private company refused to provide any records about staffing levels at the prison, despite being subject to Tennessee's public records law, just like a state agency. CCA said doing so would compromise security.
In Idaho, the state took over a CCA-run prison after the company was found to be falsifying reports to hide understaffing. Prisoners sued in 2011, complaining the understaffing led to rampant violence. CCA lost an appeal earlier this week when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a contempt of court ruling against the company for violating an agreement to increase staffing levels.
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