by Michael T. McRay
It is not what you think. I was not harassed by prisoners. I did not burn out from over four years of regular volunteering. Actually, I was banned by the warden.
In 2009, I began volunteering inside Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Over the next four years, I spent most Saturday evenings at Riverbend with several insiders and outsiders, participating in a contemplative prayer/conversation group. This was my church. After returning to Nashville in May 2013 from graduate study in Belfast, I began volunteering as a chaplain and built meaningful relationships with men all over the compound.
But everything changed in March 2014. Word spread around the compound that a new “security” system called “Tier Management” (TM) was coming to Unit 6. With two tiers of cells in each pod, TM promised to unlock only one tier of cells at a time, theoretically segregating the unit’s population. This system was expressly intended to affect inmates in “medium- or higher-custody units,” and though Unit 6 is designated as a medium-security unit, it housed staff-support inmates who were primarily minimum-security. This unit has had few, if any, major security incidents in the 26 years since the prison opened. One could argue it is the model unit in all TDOC (Department of Correction) facilities. Men work hard for years keeping their records clean to gain transfer to Unit 6. Genuine cultivation of good character among many prisoners, as well as various incentives (such as extended available recreation time), made Unit 6 one of the most non-violent units in Tennessee, a reality especially attractive when facing a life sentence, with or without parole (which in Tennessee is practically the same thing). Thus, instituting this “security” system seemed unnecessary at best and malicious at worst.
During my chaplaincy rounds, I heard anxiety from many men. Aware of the effects of TM on the maximum-security side, the men feared significant disruption to their lives, including the loss of various programs, Bible studies, and reduced rec time. These men lived as “general population,” able to move about various parts of the compound relatively unhindered. Generally, their clean records demonstrated their gratitude for these liberties. TM threatened all that, and no one knew why it was coming. The administration, upon hearing the disquietude, offered no clarification.
So, I organized free-world volunteers to write/call the TDOC administration and express concerns regarding implementing TM on Unit 6. I suspect calls and emails inundated them because I soon received a phone call from a high-ranking TDOC individual, expressing deep disapproval of my actions.
Shortly after, the warden summoned me. At the end of the hour-long interrogation, he told me the administration would be “evaluating whether you are a benefit to the institution,” and I would know my volunteer status “within 24 hours.” One month later, I finally received a letter, terminating my services. I emailed the warden to ask if I could return once more to say goodbye to my close friends, with whom I had visited for over four years. His response: “There is no other need for you to enter the facility.” Just like that, my committed presence at Riverbend ended.
Soon after I had received the call from TDOC in mid-March, I also received an email from TDOC Commissioner Schofield stating, among other things, that as volunteers, we are expected “not to discuss problems concerning the institution … with an inmate” and “not to challenge the policies of the institution or department.” This seemed directly contrary to previous invitations from TDOC for volunteers to offer feedback to the administration. “You are our eyes and ears,” I heard TDOC officials say in more than one forum. “We value your feedback.” But when a collective outcry arose, punishment was swift.
As a Tennessee resident, this deeply concerns me. Why does our prison administration require silence from its volunteers regarding the implementation of policy and “on-the-ground” dynamics in the prison? Why does it wish to mute the concerns of those who spend significant time working with and relating to prisoners? One of my friends on the inside was shipped from Riverbend some months back after residing there for years. He and I had been writing letters about a new book I’m working on. Upon his transfer, the administration told him that writing me indicated he was working as an “informant.”
In a government-run prison, funded by our one billion tax dollars, why is TDOC dismissing challenging voices and accusing prisoners of being “informants”? What is happening inside Tennessee prisons that would make TDOC so afraid of transparency? What would happen if we all demanded an answer?