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Response to Recent Questions Regarding Offender Classification

Friday, October 02, 2015 | 03:30pm

NASHVILLE – Recent questions have been posed regarding the Tennessee Department of Correction’s classification of inmates.  It is important to give the accurate definitions of the various custody levels for offenders:

  • Maximum Custody – These inmates require the greatest amount of control. Inmates housed here are under an intense level of supervision due to recent and/or serious conduct that threatens the security of the institution.  
  • Close Custody – Due to their conduct and/or offense history, these inmates require heightened supervision. 
  • Medium Custody –These inmates have minor disciplinary issues and their work/movement is limited to within the secure perimeter.
  • Minimum Custody – These inmates pose the least risk to the safety of the facility staff and other inmates and are allowed outside work details.  Minimum custody includes minimum restricted, minimum direct and minimum trusty inmates.

Prior to Commissioner Schofield’s administration, some inmates were placed on the highest level of segregation for non-violent offenses.  In 2012, the Department took a critical look at the administrative segregation population and found some significant disparities in the reason for their placement in maximum custody.  During that critical review it was also discovered that there was a disparity among the racial make-up of those placed on maximum.  Both of these disparities were deemed to be unfair, and in violation of the inmate’s 8th Amendment rights.  This disparity put the Department and the State at risk for litigation. 

A review of each inmate took place before any maximum custody offender was able to step down to a lower classification.   This review included a number of factors including length of time in maximum custody, behavior, gang affiliation, and disciplinary history.  Prior to reclassification, the facility wardens met with each offender to determine if they were able to be reclassified. 

This was not a cost-savings measure.  This was an effective, strategic part of the Department’s management of the offender population.  TDOC manages offenders by risk.  Being placed in maximum custody is not punishment but is an effective way to control disruptive inmate behavior. 

It must be noted that most of these re-integrations into lower classification units were successful.  More than 90% of the inmates that were stepped down were successfully re-intergrated into the general population. 

Currently, offenders are frequently being reassessed to insure that they are in the right program, in the right facility at the right security level.  By policy an inmate’s classification is reviewed annually or anytime there is an event that would change custody level.

Finally, TDOC’s proactive approach to population management has kept the State from being the subject of numerous federal lawsuits on this subject.  The Association of State Correctional Administrators(ASCA) recently released a report on administrative segregation.  This report calls the prolonged confinement of individuals in jails and prisons “a grave problem.”  It later adds that “Correctional leaders across the country are committed to reducing the number of people in restrictive housing and what it means to be there.”  TDOC has taken a proactive approach in managing and supervising offenders. The safety of staff and offenders as well as the interest of the state is our highest priority. 

The Department is committed to enhancing the safety of the Tennesseans by operating safe and secure prisons and providing effective community supervision.