Democrats denounce scuttling of prison oversight bill; Republicans denounce Democrats

The Sunday assault on guards at the state’s Turney Center shows the need for legislative oversight of the prison system, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart declared at a news conference Monday.

Bills to re-establish a Corrections Oversight Committee, abolished in 2011, have all died quietly this session. One with Republican sponsors (SB1145) was sent to “general sub” in the Senate Health Committee Monday, dead for the year since the panel is now closed. That measure would also have recreated an abolished oversight committees on TennCare and childrens’ services.

Stewart called the failure to re-establish a corrections oversight panel “totally ridiculous,” reports The Tennessean.

“That’s obviously a slap in the face to every corrections officer in the state,” Stewart said of the Senate’s move. He urged Senate leadership to “undo that mistake” and get the bill to the floor for a vote.

…Republican lawmakers called the (Democrats’) news conference “shameful” and blamed Democrats for playing politics with an incident that could have happened regardless if there was oversight or not.

“No amount of oversight would have prevented that attack,” Rep. Bill Sanderson said Monday in an informal meeting with other Republicans. Sanderson is chairman of the State Government subcommittee, which stripped out a provision in a bill from Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that would re-establish oversight committees for three state departments (the House version of SB1145).

Currently, oversight is done in an “ad hoc” sort of fashion, Stewart said, and lawmakers rely primarily on information coming from officers or other sources independently.

“We have been trying to exercise oversight, but ad hoc oversight that relies on people inside the prisons sending information to state representatives is hardly a substitute for what we had in this state and what we need, which is full legislative oversight by a legislative oversight committee,” Stewart said.

Flanked by several officials from human rights organizations and others, Stewart said they should heed the warnings that have come from as high as the state Supreme Court that prison control could go back under federal authorities if conditions did not improve. He said the support should be “unanimous.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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