Drive past the industrial buildings and John C. Tune Airport on Centennial Boulevard in West Nashville and there’s a sharp curve in the road that dares drivers to take it.
The curve leads down a hill, cuts right, and dead-ends at the now-abandoned Charles Bass Correctional Complex Annex.
Once known as “The Farm” — named for its rural setting and work-emphasis atmosphere — the Bass annex was one of only three mens minimum-security facilities in the state of Tennessee.
The shuttered facility now serves as a symbol of a larger issue facing Tennessee: the stark lack of facilities and work programs for minimum-security prisoners. It’s an issue that could potentially cost the state millions of dollars.
At the annex, inmates were housed in cabin-like buildings with long rows of bunk beds, communal showers and minimal personal space. A building in the center of campus served as a community center with a laundry facility, weight room, cafeteria, library and general-use area for classes and visitation.
The lifestyle was a long way from solitary confinement or cell life — but still prison. All the inmates were classified as minimum-custody, meaning their original offenses were nonviolent or they were reaching the end of long sentences. Prisoners went through a strict admission program to get transferred there.
The Farm was a place for rehabilitation and re-acclimation. Many of the prisoners were on work-release, meaning they obtained jobs off-site in fast food restaurants, auto repair shops, or other places that provided real-world experience and interaction.
Others were used on work details, providing highway cleanup or other services for the government. Classes were offered with local college students and educators.
But now, all of that is gone.
The Tennessee Department of Correction closed the 358-bed facility on Nov. 6 after two escapes in a 6-week period.
“The Annex could not continue to operate under the current design and maintain the integrity of being called a secure facility,” a TDOC press release read.
At February’s state budget hearings in Nashville, newly elected Gov. Bill Haslam grilled TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield in just his third week on the job. Haslam asked Schofield why Tennessee’s recidivism rate (46 percent, according to TDOC) was so much higher than neighboring states like Georgia (28 percent, according to Schofield).
Schofield, who worked in Georgia’s Department of Corrections for nearly 20 years, attributed the difference to “various reasons.”
And while it’s clear that multiple factors affect why offenders end up back in prison, there is an interesting contrast in the two states’ infrastructures: Georgia has 15 correctional release facilities that house nearly 3,000 minimum-security inmates. Those inmates live in dormitory-style buildings, and a large majority of them are on work-release, according to the GDOT.
Following the closure of the Charles Bass Annex, Tennessee has just one transitional center, a 40-bed facility for female offenders at the Tennessee Prison for Women.
In the same budget hearing in February, Schofield also announced the abolition of four already-funded correctional release centers for men.
“These programs across the nation have proven to show a marked difference in terms of the individuals going through these programs in terms of returning back to prison,” Schofield said about the centers.
“So the question would be, why is it on [the reduction list]? As you look at our core mission, our core mission is about operating safe and secure facilities and keeping offenders locked up. … As we move forward, we will look for ways to continue [with the correctional release center plans], but today we have this as a recommendation [to defer].”
Wheels started to turn on the pre-release centers in September when TDOC sought proposals for facilities in Middle Tennessee, West Tennessee and East Tennessee.
However, those facilities would add only a combined 150 beds for the more than 3,500 minimum-custody inmates in Tennessee.
So, what’s the cost of not having dedicated facilities for minimum-custody inmates?
About 14,000 of 30,000 state inmates are housed in local county jails and private prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America — and TDOC pays the rent.
According to Schofield, it costs the state about $35 per day per inmate in county jail and an average of $49.66 per inmate in private prisons. It costs the state almost $65 per day to house inmates in its own facilities, but that number is higher because the state takes on the highest-security inmates.
So here’s the math.
The latest numbers show that 14,573 inmates were released in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. According to the TDOC recidivism rate, 6,703 of those inmates would return to prison at an average cost of almost $122 million per year.
A 10 percent trim in recidivism would cut about $26 million of cost per year.
There is also data that suggests inmates from minimum-security prisons are less likely to reoffend. A 2007 Yale University study by Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro shows inmates in medium- and maximum-security prisons returned to jail at a higher rate than those in minimum-security facilities.
In a recent interview with The Boston Globe, David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s Prison Project, preached the importance of pre-release centers.
“We know that stepping prisoners down progressively and allowing them to have more responsibility works,’’ he said. “More prisoners in medium and maximum mean more prisoners released directly from medium and maximum prisons, and everything we know shows that that’s bad for public safety.’’
Minimum-security facilities come with inherent risk.
The annex didn’t have locks on the doors — only a chain link fence and TDOC-issued clothing provided the distinction between inmate and free man.
On Sept. 26, 28-year-old Romeous Lockridge jumped the fence and paid the price. He later showed up at Skyline Medical Center with a broken arm and lacerations. Hospital officials turned him over to authorities.
Then, on Nov. 4, Anthony Walker, 20, briefly tasted freedom before being recaptured behind a gas station just a mile from the annex.
Walker’s escape was the last straw.
“Public safety is about public perception … and that facility has had some issues over the years,” Schofield said. “I don’t think it was out of hand, but the risk of what might happen outweighs allowing them to stay open.”
Over the past five years, 15 prisoners have escaped from the annex or work details.
But local prison advocate Denver Schimming, who volunteered and taught at the annex, called its closing “tragic.”
According to Schimming, the atmosphere of the annex gave inmates in higher-security facilities a goal to reach.
“Anything that could be done that would encourage right behavior or hard work is a good thing,” Schimming said. “People respond to incentives, even if it’s behind bars.”
Schimming is qualified to speak on life in jail — he spent almost two years in a federal prison after being convicted of bank robbery. But for the past 17 years, he’s been traveling the country and sharing his story of redemption. He even ran for public office in 2010. He knows the importance of allowing inmates a slow integration back into society.
“The annex allowed someone to work outside of prison for an employer. It helps an individual interact with other people,” Schimming said. “It helps with their people skills and communications skills. They also get individual wages, and some of the compensation goes toward court fines and other costs.”
One of the trademark programs of the annex — the Genesis program — provided inmates nine months of reintegration. The 90-bed portion of the annex supplied inmates with a job and required them to pay rent for better accommodations.
Aside from the 40-bed program at Tennessee Prison for Women, it was the only program of its kind in Tennessee.
A TDOC spokeswoman said the department is “re-evaluating the Genesis program and work-release in general.”
“Good people make bad decisions, and bad people can change.”
For former inmate Willie Williams, those words turned his life around.
Williams, a Nashville native, turned himself in to authorities after he was charged with armed robbery five years ago.
“When I went into prison, I made a decision to change,” Williams said. “I got my education, my GED, and I taught myself. It took me a year and a half to get my education because no one would teach me.”
Williams started his four-year sentence at the Charles Bass Complex Main Facility before being transferred to Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only, Tenn., 75 miles south of Nashville.
After a year in Turney’s main complex, he worked his way into the annex there. Another year of good behavior got Williams admitted to the annex at Charles Bass.
“The good thing about the annex is that people do have to change and have to work to get their custody level dropped,” Williams said. “If you do what you’re supposed to, you get to go to a less-secure facility, which gives you more privileges.”
Among those privileges: getting to be outside until midnight on weekends, improved food and less-strict visitation rules.
TDOC provides inmates with education programs through the Tennessee Re-Eentry Collaborative, which Williams took advantage of throughout his incarceration. At the annex, he took a Victim Impact class, participated in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, and even studied theotherapy, or prayer-based recovery, prior to release.
But the biggest opportunity at the annex was the prospect of a job.
“[The Charles Bass Annex] was the land of the milk and honey … the reason being the work-release programs,” Williams said
At the other minimum-security annexes in Tennessee, there are work-detail programs and even some opportunities to learn agriculture — but The Farm was the only one with a substantial work-release program.
Williams went through a four-week training process before the warden and other higher-ups signed off on his work-release application. He found a job working at Quizno’s during the day, and at night, he took classes at the annex.
But not everybody had the same determination.
“For some people, once they got here, they relaxed and got wild again: smokin’ tobacco, bringing money in, using cell phones,” Williams said.
“Some of those guys never get rid of that behavior. That’s what makes it hard for people like me.”
And that’s what eventually led to the closure of the annex.
“One person makes it hard for 100 people. … So many people before us have paved a rocky road,” Williams said. “The people that need to be held accountable should be held accountable.”
Williams was released from the annex in 2010, and instead of going home to his wife and kids, he joined the Dismas House on Music Row.
At Dismas, he shared living quarters with other former prisoners alongside Vanderbilt students and kept his job at Quizno’s.
He attributes his success to the annex allowing him to reintegrate gradually into outside life.
“The little bit of freedom at a time, the gradual stair-stepping … that helped me. You need to merge slowly back into society,” Williams said.
One of his college counterparts at the Dismas House came up with an idea to open a custom-apparel store called Triple Thread about a year ago. The goal was to screen-print shirts and give former inmates an opportunity to get back into the workplace. Williams was the first employee.
Now, as a manager, Williams takes what he learned from his days at the annex and helps inmates on the outside.
“When that person gets out the door [of prison], there needs to be someone there with an outreached hand, saying ‘Come on, we can help you,’ ” Williams said.
“They are wondering: ‘How am I going to live? What am I going to eat? Where am I going to get a job?’ So what do they do? They either reoffend, go back to a place where they’ve got three hots and a cot, or they kill themselves.”
And as much as programs and facilities can help former inmates, Williams said it still comes down to the individual and their drive to change. Williams is thankful that he’s on the right path.
“My desire and goal is to keep me straight, clean and free, but in doing that, my payback to society is to help someone else with what I’ve learned,” Williams said.
On a rainy Tuesday morning earlier this month, Schofield participated in his second budget hearing of his tenure, meeting with Haslam in the basement of the state Capitol.
The governor asked all the state departments to show the effects of a 5 percent reduction. For TDOC’s $709 million budget, that would mean slashing $33 million from the budget — or the equivalent of closing a 1,352-bed prison and cutting 329 jobs.
“Could we do it? Yes, sir. Would it be a strain? Yes, sir,” Schofield told Haslam.
In addition to planning out the reduction, TDOC also asked the governor for an additional $80 million.
So, as the department hopes to get enough funding to stay afloat, minimum-security prisons and work-release facilities didn’t dominate budget discussions.
But even TDOC recognizes a need for more programs geared at minimum-custody inmates.
In their 2010 Strategic Plan, TDOC released five obstacles they need to overcome to achieve their goals.
“Obstacle 3 — There is limited availability of transitional release training and services for offenders, which reduces the chance of a successful reintegration into the community upon release,” the report reads.
Yet around that curve in West Nashville sits an unused facility — one that served multiple purposes.
To some, it was redemption — a place where they turned their lives around. And for others, it was just a short stop in a lifetime of incarceration.
Now, it’s empty.
What happens to the annex?
The future of the Charles Bass Correctional Complex Annex still remains unclear.
In a weekly newsletter, the Tennessee Department of Correction said the annex would be “evaluated for physical plant upgrades, mission change, and a variety of other options.”
Among the other options is use as a probation facility, according to TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield.
There are 12 probation detention centers with more than 3,000 beds in Georgia, where Schofield worked for two decades before being appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam. Currently, the TDOC doesn’t have any probation-specific facilities.
The TDOC also spoke of making security upgrades and turning the center into a medium-security facility.
One possible option that hasn’t been discussed, however, is the involvement of Corrections Corporation of America — a Nashville-based private incarceration company that the state contracts to run three of its 14 prisons.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said they haven’t had any discussions with the TDOC regarding the annex.
“If there are opportunities where we can further serve the state’s needs, we’d certainly take a look at those,” Owen said.