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Parker speaks of ways to reduce jail's revolving door
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Tennessee Commissioner of Corrections Tony C. Parker says the goal is to have inmates not return to incarceration after their release. - photo by Bill Zechman

Ninety-five out of every 100 current state prisoners will be released at some point and returned to society. But more than four out of 10 of those ex-convicts will commit new offenses and be back behind bars.

The revolving door at state prisons and county jails exacts a heavy cost on individuals, their families and communities. But there is hope and opportunity for reducing inmate recidivism, Tennessee Commissioner of Corrections Tony C. Parker told local Rotarians on Thursday.

Speaking to The Rotary Club of McMinnville, Parker said stemming the recycling traffic of inmates must start with addressing the root causes of criminal behavior. Among the most common and persistent of problems are substance abuse, mental health issues and lack of basic education and vocational skills required to hold a regular, worthwhile job. 

Compliance with court-directed conditions of probation is another big challenge in avoiding repeated incarceration.

“Thirty percent of incoming inmates are evaluated with serious drug issues. Thirty-five to 40 percent have mental health problems,” he stated. But for women with mental health diagnoses, the numbers are as high as 70-75 percent.

Among the 6,400 Department of Corrections employees, several are credentialed mental health and substance addiction professionals.

That kind of high-caliber service isn’t cheap, but it’s less costly than leaving the underlying conditions untreated, he emphasized.

“These people are coming back into your community,” said Parker, and they need to be prepared for a new life and new opportunities for work, positive social interaction and support for their families. He said preparing inmates for re-entry to society begins on Day 1 of their incarceration.

The average daily cost per imprisoned inmate in Tennessee is about $80. But in productive, supervised release programs, the taxpayer cost of supervised release in the community is only $4 to $5 a day, Park said. 

Tennessee’s system of six regional day centers supporting probationers is another alternative to the hard lockup of prisoners, costing only $30 per day.  

The social cost of recidivism has been financially punishing for Warren County taxpayers, local and state officials have said.

The Warren County Commission authorized borrowing up to $6.5 million for expanding the present county jail but pulled back from signing the papers in the hope of finding alternatives to the historic overcrowding of the local lockup.  

The recidivism rate at Warren County Jail has spiked as high at 80 per cent, County Executive Jimmy Haley revealed in a lively exchange of thoughts with Parker following his prepared speech at McMinnville Noon Rotary.

Tennessee’s prison recidivism rate has been ticking down steadily over the past few years to 46.4 percent last year, “But that’s not going down fast enough,” Parker observed. 

Parker expands on his Rotary Club remarks and addresses related topics when he appears this week in the “Focus” interview series on public radio 91.3 WCPI. The first broadcast of his half-hour interview airs Tuesday at 5 p.m. with repeats Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday at 1 a.m.