News broke last week that Wayne County’s largest employer, South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, would be moving inmates out and closing the prison doors. This came as a surprise to SCCF employees, who were notified that their positions at the facility would be lost, but they will have the option to move to another of CoreCivic’s facilities.
When The News reached out to CoreCivic for a statement, they sent us the following: “The current contract at South Central expires June 30 of this year. We are not seeking to renew the contract, and will cease operating the facility by no later than June 30.”
The federal court system took control of Tennessee prisons in 1982 when a U.S. District Court found portions of the system unconstitutional and appointed a special master to run them. Overcrowding sparked violence and riots across the system in 1985, and the Legislature responded with a special session to set up the Comprehensive Corrections Improvement Act, which established the Oversight Committee on Corrections, the Tennessee Sentencing Commission and the Community Corrections program. All three of those have been nixed or changed dramatically in the last three years.
Juvenile functions were removed from the Department of Correction in 1985, and Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville and the Wayne County Boot Camp started.
Seven years later, the state closed Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville and opened the first private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America — now CoreCivic — in Clifton. A year later, the prison system emerged from federal oversight. In 2016, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) rebranded and became CoreCivic.
The CoreCivic facility in Clifton, South Central Correctional Facility, is a medium security prison that has the capacity to house 1,700 adult male offenders. Grady Perry was named warden at the facility in December 2018. Perry said that he was in the first class of Correctional Officers and began working at SCCF in 1992 when it first opened.
“It’s heartbreaking to me that the facility is closing, but I can understand why,” said Perry. “I am mostly concerned for our staff, many of whom reside in Wayne County. I don’t want to see any of them out of work, and I hope it works out for them to be able to transfer to another location.”
South Central Correctional Facility has been plagued with issues for the past several years, as have other Tennessee prisons. According to the publication Tennessee Lookout, the state pays CoreCivic about $180 million a year to run four prisons. The private operator has been dogged by statistics showing its murder rate for prisoners is higher than that in state-run prisons.
“Is it time for the federal courts just to take over our prison system again and clear house, because if the prisons can’t take care of themselves, then obviously we need some outside institution to do that?” said TN Rep. Mike Stewart in 2022.
In 2022, the parents of three inmates who died in prison in 2021 accused CoreCivic of prioritizing profits instead of inmate safety and failing to monitor prison guards. Lawsuits were filed stemming from the deaths of three men – Chriteris Allen, Laeddie Coleman and Joshua Williams – at three CoreCivic prisons from August to November 2021. They accused the company of understaffing its four Tennessee prisons to increase shareholder profits by cutting costs, ignoring guards’ drug smuggling, refusing to get outside medical treatment for inmates, and failing to provide a safe atmosphere for inmates.
Allen was found dead from a fentanyl overdose in his Whiteville Correctional Facility cell; Coleman was stabbed to death at Hardeman County Correctional Facility in an unmonitored pod; and Williams died of a fentanyl overdose at South Central Correctional Facility. An autopsy showed he suffered “systemic infections throughout his body, including pneumonia.”
The facility in Clifton has reportedly dealt with various building issues as well, including doors and gates that don’t lock properly. Padlocks have allegedly been used on cell doors that wouldn’t lock electronically anymore.
Staffing shortages have also been a major problem, with the ratio of correctional officers to inmates increasing regularly. Then there is the major drug problem; inmates and employees only recently suffered from exposure to an “unknown substance,” allegedly fentanyl.
Warden Perry addressed speculation that the facility in Clifton will be taken over by the state and will re-open. “I hope and pray that something can be worked out,” said Perry. “But that’s ultimately up to Governor Bill Lee, so we will just have to wait and see.”