COVID Left Our Private Prison With a New Normal: “Rolling Lockdowns”

    Like with so many prisons across the country, the pandemic sent Tennessee’s South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) into a state of chronic understaffing. If someone in our living unit tested positive for COVID-19 we were put on lockdown for the next seven days. But the understaffing crisis is outlasting the COVID crisis—sometimes we’re all on lockdown, but at all times some of us are on lockdown.

    These days, we’re kept in “rolling lockdowns” where half the living unit—either Pod A or Pod B—is confined to their cells at a time. Each pod houses 128 prisoners, and there used to be one guard per pod. For the past four months or so, there’s only been one guard, who is supposed to be in two places at once. So, the pods take turns on lockdown. If there’s a shakedown coming too, we know the situation is about to become much worse.

    By 7 a.m. our water is shut off. Though we’re housed in two-person cells, a more accurate description would be to say my cellee and I live in a small bathroom. By 9:30 a.m., the electricity is shut off—now we live in an open sewer.

    The outside temperature is in the 90s. We sprinkle baby powder around the room, and try to pretend it covers the rising stench as the contents of everyone’s unflushed toilets start to bake.

    We have no contraband, but dread creeps in as we wait facing the wall. We know our belongings are being destroyed.

    The shakedown crew arrives, around 20 officers dressed in all black and carrying pepper spray and tasers. They extract us from our cells a few at a time. I’m on the top floor, so I get to watch them work their way up for a while before it’s my turn. We all know the routine by heart: Wait for handcuffs to be removed; strip naked; lift genitals; spread cheeks; squat; cough. They inspect your asshole to see if anything looks unusual. Then you’re handcuffed once more, walked to a different part of the unit and made to sit on the floor facing the wall. No talking. No looking up. Head down at all times.

    My cellee and I have no contraband for the shakedown crew to find, but that never eases the dread that creeps over us as we wait facing the wall. We know our belongings are being destroyed; it’s just a matter of how thoroughly.

    When we’re allowed to return to our cell, we survey the damage in silence. Papers, letters, pictures of loved ones, books we’d bought; all thrown to the floor, soggy from the water that’s flooded the cell because our ice chests melted after the power was shut off. Some cookies and Tylenol I’d bought from commissary are floating in the toilet. I’ll have to fish them out before the water comes back on, otherwise we’ll never get the toilet unclogged. My cellee sinks down on the wet floor and begins to weep; the shakedown crew broke his guitar.

    Without enough security officers, shakedowns fall to whatever staff are available—teachers; secretaries.

    SCCF is a private prison operated by CoreCivic, the company contracted by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). Private contractors are notorious for endangering prisoners in their relentless bids to cut costs however they can; CoreCivic is no exception.

    Twice a year, we have mandated facility-wide shakedowns where every cell gets tossed. These shakedowns are when a lot of personal belongings are lost, especially at CoreCivic facilities. There aren’t enough security officers left to do the job, so it falls to whatever staff are available—teachers; secretaries. They don’t have any security training, and often don’t know what’s legal property and what’s contraband, so they just toss everything.

    “Even though nation-wide, correctional agencies, both public and private, have faced staffing challenges, CoreCivic works to meet or exceed our daily staffing patterns, which…are reviewed and approved by our government partners at the Tennessee Department of Correction,” CoreCivic Public Affairs Manager Brian Todd told Filter. “It is also important to know that any decision to place the facility on lockdown is made in consultation with our government partner, the Tennessee Department of Correction.”

    TDOC told Filter that inquiries about SCCF should be directed to CoreCivic.

    The worst shakedowns, the most destructive and cruel, come after a prisoner assaults an officer. When such incidents occur, we might not have food or running water for days.

    “CoreCivic proudly serves three nutritious meals every day to everyone in our care at South Central Correctional Center,” Todd said. “We strongly deny any allegation about withholding food or water.”

    We take turns washing ourselves in the sink, and try to clean the sewage from the walls and floor.

    Breakfast was a bologna sandwich and a saltine cracker, followed by a cheese sandwich and saltine cracker about 12 hours later. My cellee and I aren’t hungry. At 9:30 p.m., the water and power come back on. We take turns washing ourselves in the sink, and try to clean some of the sewage from the walls and floor. Once there’s nothing more we can do, we climb into our bunks and wonder if we’ll do the same thing tomorrow.

    Not all lockdowns involve shakedowns, but there’s still a shakedown at least once a week. Someone overdoses, or a drone drops a contraband delivery into the yard, or a group of prisoners gathers in such a way as to be suspected of “gang activity.” Whatever pretext can be used to keep us confined to our small bathrooms, rather than pay to keep the facility staffed.



    Photograph of Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, another CoreCivic-operated facility in Tennessee, via State of Wyoming Legislature

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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