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Officials: Inmates assault 3 Tennessee correctional officers

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee prison is on lockdown after three correctional officers were assaulted, including two who were stabbed multiple times during a weekend disturbance involving 16 inmates.

The Tennessee Department of Correction says the inmates attacked the officers, holding one hostage for three hours Sunday afternoon at a housing unit at the Turney Center Industrial Complex. The prison is in Hickman County, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southwest of Nashville.

At a news conference Monday, Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said the incident was an “unprovoked, senseless act” by inmates with gang connections.

Parker said the attack started with a conversation between an officer and an inmate when inmates were returning from a recreational area. The inmate, with no provocation, assaulted the officer and the situation escalated from there, he said.

The department said it deployed its Special Operations Unit, which gained control after about three hours.

The injured officers were airlifted to a hospital. Officer Lester Ball was released overnight. Officers Paul Nielsen and Jesse Shockley, who was taken hostage, remained hospitalized. Both were reported in stable condition. No one else was injured, Parker said.

The inmates involved were sent to two maximum-security facilities. Five of them were serving life sentences on convictions that included first-degree murder. The rest were serving from eight to 33 years for a variety of crimes. No charges have been filed in connection to the weekend assault, which is still under investigation.

The incident drew scrutiny from legislative Democrats and prisoner’s-rights advocates.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, said the unit where the incident occurred is known to house a large number of gang members, even though the state doesn’t officially designate it as a gang unit.

“Basically, prison officials at Turney Center dump a lot of gang members into a single unit, which is a very dangerous practice because it allows gang members to concentrate their numbers, and thus their power base, it puts other inmates who are not gang affiliated at risk, and it makes it much more difficult for correctional staff to oversee and monitor that unit,” Friedmann said.

Parker described it as a medium-custody, general population unit housing 128 inmates, including gang members. The staffing level is one officer per 128 inmates, which Parker called a general staffing level for a general population unit. The other two officers came from elsewhere at the prison to help, he said.

“When you have an incident that happens that’s been unprovoked, obviously I don’t know that more staff would have helped in this situation,” Parker said.

State Democratic lawmakers said the incident reflects the need to reinstate a legislative oversight committee on prisons, which was disbanded several years ago. They called on Republican legislative leadership to consider a bill that would re-establish the panel.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said he has received complaints of assaults on 11 officers at the Turney Center over an eight-month period.

“We need a committee that can take testimony, that can issue subpoenas, that can do what is necessary to get to the bottom of these issues,” Stewart said.

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This story has been edited to correct the name of the prison to Turney Center Industrial Complex, not Turnkey.

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