BY THE NUMBERS
Prisoners in Tennessee state custody: 19,595
Number by classification
Maximum: 528, or 2 percent
Close: 887, or 5 percent
Medium: 6,391, or 33 percent
Minimum: 11,789 or 60 percent
Daily cost to house an inmate
Number of Tennessee state prisons: 14
Number with maximum-security inmates: 6
Source: Tennessee Department of Correction
Jesse Mathews lives alone in a cell 23 hours a day at West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, Tenn.
He's in maximum security because he killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin on April 2, 2011, during a robbery on Brainerd Road.
Each week, prison officials review his conduct; soon that will change to a monthly review. If he behaves himself, Mathews eventually will move to medium security where he'll have a cellmate, a job, education, visitors and contact with other inmates throughout the day.
A month ago fellow officers and members of Chapin's family were outraged to learn that Mathews initially was classified as medium security. He pleaded guilty in November to killing Chapin and took a plea deal that earned him life without parole instead of facing the death penalty.
The Hamilton County District Attorney's Office immediately called corrections officials and forwarded details about Mathews' crime, his escape from a federal halfway house in Colorado and his story while in jail here that he had an ice pick in his rectum. That story got him taken to a hospital. No ice pick was ever found, but local officials said he might have been hatching an escape plot.
Three days after the complaints, Mathews was moved from the medium-security prison in Tiptonville, Tenn., to his current maximum-security home.
What few outside the prison system understand is that the charge that sends a felon to prison is but one factor in how an inmate is handled when he arrives. It's not even the most important factor.
"Now, that's not going to sit well with the victim's family; I understand and I probably would feel the same way," said Tony Parker, assistant commissioner of prisons for Tennessee.
But, he said, "these inmates were sent here; their punishment was being sent to prison. They're not sent here to be tortured or punished inside the facility."
The Chapin family declined to comment for this story.
Parker stressed that public safety is the department's No. 1 priority, and each facility follows policy accredited by the American Corrections Association.
There are nearly 20,000 prisoners in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Correction. As of last week, 528 were in maximum security.
The department has 14 prisons, six of which can house maximum security inmates. All of the facilities house prisoners down to the minimum level.
There are four levels of classification. From least restrictive to most, they are minimum, medium, close and maximum.
Regardless of current level, all prisoners receive at least an annual classification reassessment.
Though Mathews will be in prison for the rest of his life, locking him up under maximum security the entire time is neither cost-effective nor humane, Parker said.
The average annual cost to house an inmate in maximum security is $35,000. The cost for a medium-security inmate is $23,000, according to TDOC figures.
Hoan Bui is a sociology professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who has studied prisoner rehabilitation.
Bui said the United States leads industrialized nations in incarceration rates and noted that the past 40 years have seen a punishment rather than rehabilitation model.
Classifying prisoners, she said, better prepares them for the outside world when released.
Ninety-six percent of inmates in Tennessee prisons eventually will be released, Parker said.
Even for those who will spend the rest of their lives inside, Bui said locking them in solitary confinement gives them no hope.
"People who have no hope tend to experience mental health problems," said Bui. "We cannot just keep people locked up forever without assessment."
Recent articles in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones magazines chronicle the practice of long-term solitary confinement and its effects on prisoners.
Suicide attempts and mental illness were reported as results in multiple reported cases of prisoners confined in such ways for years and even decades.
Bui said there isn't much research on the long-term effects of solitary confinement, so there's not enough evidence to show if an inmate will become more violent when kept in that state.
Parker said the prison classification system is an effective tool that helps manage the inmate population and can provide incentive for an inmate, who may be in the prison for a very long time, to behave.
"It is our responsibility to the public to provide safety," Parker said. "But keeping inmates segregated when there's no justification is not a best practice."
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...