Tennessee Alumnus

He Holds the Key

He Holds the Key

By Bud Grimes

When Tony Parker goes home at the end of the work day, he leaves 2,400 men behind. They’ll be there when he arrives the next morning. Parker is warden of the Northwest Correctional Complex near Tiptonville, Tennessee, in Lake County. He has spent almost three decades working in Tennessee corrections, and the faces of some of today’s prisoners are the same faces he saw when his career began. The 45-year-old Parker (Martin ’95) holds the distinction of being the youngest warden in the state’s correctional system.

The Lake County Regional Correctional Facility opened in 1981 to house up to 500 inmates. In 1992, Northwest Corrections Center was opened, and is now called Site 1. The entire facility, the second largest prison in Tennessee has an annual operating budget of about $50 million and houses inmates who range in classification from close-custody to medium security. The American Correctional Association, which conducts an intensive accreditation/inspection every three years, has accredited the complex since it opened.

Parker’s facility and 11 others under the Tennessee Department of Correction have plenty of demand for their services. As of March 2009, the TDOC Web site reported that 19,519 inmates were incarcerated in Tennessee’s adult institutions. About 25 percent were convicted of homicide-related crimes. Almost 1,800 inmates are serving life sentences, 270 of them without possibility of parole. The average cost-per-day to house a TDOC inmate is about $64.

Northwest Correctional Complex sits amid acres of West Tennessee farmland just east of the Mississippi River, surrounded by two sets of fences topped by razor-edged barbed wire. The warden’s office is in the administration building, separated from the prison complex by a single heavily secured gate and walkway. Parker, a calm, friendly guy in a business suit, could be the CEO of any company. He speaks firmly, a plus for someone in his line of work.

“It’s the choices you make in life that determine your future.”

For Parker, the presence of a prison in his native Lake County offered a career opportunity. A member of the 1981 state champion Lake County High School football team, Parker graduated in 1982 and, at the age of 19, started working as a correctional officer at the facility. It was a time when jobs were hard to find in Lake County. He soon realized he needed more education to advance in corrections work, so he began attending Dyersburg State Community College. He worked the 2 to 10 p.m. shift and studied criminal justice, earning an associate degree before enrolling at UT Martin to pursue his bachelor’s. Parker earned an academic scholarship for transfer students, and as with Dyersburg State, the small university campus turned out to be a good choice.

“The instructors took the time to work with you, and they helped me,” he says. “They worked around my schedule a lot of times with my job and all.” He attended classes full time and during the summers and completed his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in criminal justice in four years.

A sergeant when he graduated from UT Martin, Parker was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain about a year later. He was interested in going to work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol and was hired, but bursitis in both knees prevented him from continuing. A few months later, he was promoted to associate warden at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning. He worked there about three years and transferred back to Northwest as deputy warden, then moved up to warden in 2003.

At the time he graduated from high school, corrections work offered stability and benefits, but Parker had entered a challenging field at a very young age. Today, he sees young men and women entering the profession, and he advises them, “You’re going to be exposed to a lot of unusual situations you haven’t seen before.” When he spoke recently to a leadership class at Lake County High School, he described inmates as “people who’ve made bad decisions and bad mistakes.” Parker’s years in corrections have given him perspective. “I’ve got inmates here that basically I’ve grown up with … they’re still incarcerated here, and I’ve known them for a long time,” he says. “It’s the choices you make in life that determine your future.”

A people-intensive job

To say that Parker has a people-intensive job is an understatement. Besides the inmates for whom he is responsible, Northwest has 691 employees not including contract employees for such critical areas as medical and psychiatric services. He estimates that up to 70 percent of Northwest inmates are there because of drug activity, but even with violent-crime offenders in the prison’s population, this isn’t a maximum-custody facility.

“Maximum custody is for inmates who, because of their behavior, present a significant security risk to the facility or to others,” Parker says. “We have 30 inmates who are on maximum custody who were placed here for assault-type behavior, escape attempts, things like that.”

Maximum custody supervision requires inmates to be in their cells 23 hours a day. They have one hour of recreation, time to shower, and they remain on maximum custody until Parker makes a decision to release them back to a close-custody unit. Interestingly enough, Parker says an inmate’s custody level has very little to do with his criminal offense.

“Their charge when they come to prison does not mandate their custody level like most people believe. You can have someone doing a life sentence that can qualify for minimum custody, provided their behavior remains acceptable and appropriate.

“That doesn’t mean they would be housed outside the grounds of the facility. We do have minimum-custody inmates housed outside, but they’re what we call minimum-direct and trustee inmates. Those inmates are within a certain time limit of their release date, and they meet our criteria by policy to be placed outside.”

A typical day

If there is a typical day inside a prison, it usually begins early for Parker as he arrives before 7 a.m. to check incident reports from the previous night. He then visits different areas in the complex, including the housing units and the food-service areas. His goal is to make daily contact with the staff and inmates. “My job is to see that the policies of the Department of Correction are followed, that we run a facility that is in line with the mission of the department and our mission as a facility.”

Northwest’s focus is on public safety/security, education, and community service, and Parker is proud the prison has “a lot of educational opportunities for inmates.” Basic education, vocational, and even academic classes offered by UT Martin are available.

“We have a couple of vocational classes that are skilled community service groups,” he said. “They go out and build libraries, churches, (and) for non-profit governmental organizations. We do a lot of work in our surrounding communities.”

An academic partnership

As for the academic classes, UT Martin partnered with the Department of Correction to bring college courses to Northwest starting in early 2008. Dr. Leslie LaChance, associate professor of English, became involved when her department was asked to provide someone to teach an English course at the prison. She had previous experience teaching at the former Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville and at Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

LaChance taught courses in the first-year composition sequence at Northwest in spring and fall 2008. “The inmate students were very highly engaged and highly motivated,” she says. “They understood they were being given a privilege, so they treated the course and my presence as a privilege.

“I think some of the students in those classes hadn’t ever considered the possibility that they could pursue a college education.” She says she felt the courses “opened a door for many of them that maybe they hadn’t thought could ever be open.” And, while at Northwest, LaChance says she never felt threatened, which is in line with what Parker says about prison security.

“Inside the correctional facility, you know what you’re dealing with. When you go out sometimes in some of our areas among the public, you don’t know what you’re dealing with,” he says. “I feel just as safe inside this facility as I do visiting some of our larger cities in Tennessee – probably safer.”

Consequences not punishment

This isn’t to say Parker hasn’t faced threatening situations. “It’s rare, but it does happen,” he says. “Any time you put 2,400 people [together] who don’t want to be here, you’re going to have problems.” He is confident in the prison staff’s training and ability to deal with potentially violent situations. “Any of them [violent situations] have the potential to be critical, but very seldom does a situation increase to a level where you have a real critical incident,” he says.

Parker never forgets that inmates are people, and an important part of his job is being fair when difficult situations arise. “Inmates are sent to prison as part of their punishment,” he says. “They’re not sent here to be punished, and that’s an important thing that anybody who works in a correctional facility must understand.” His dealings with inmates often result in contact with their families, which adds another level of complexity to tense situations.

Situations arise within inmates’ families and the inmate can’t be there, “but that’s the consequences of the decision that the inmate made at one point in his life that caused him to be incarcerated,” Parker says. “It’s unfortunate for the inmate, but it’s not the family’s fault. We try to go out of our way to accommodate the family members if it’s at all possible, considering the security issues that relate to the situation.”

Deaths of inmates’ family members are especially difficult. “We really go to the extreme to try to provide an escorted visit to the funeral home for an immediate family member, unless there is a security issue that is paramount,” Parker says.

Some Northwest inmates are serving life sentences, but Parker doesn’t make a point of knowing “what every inmate’s charge is or how much time they are serving, unless I’m looking at an issue of transporting that inmate outside the facility or looking at a reduction in his custody level, which reduces the amount of supervision the inmate requires.”

Northwest offers a pre-release program to help inmates prepare for life outside the prison. Those with special needs receive additional support where possible. Twelve to 15 inmates are released every week, and Parker knows inmates who have straightened up their lives. He credits Northwest for playing an important role in their transformation.

“We offer drug and alcohol treatment programs inside the facility, and I think those are some of the best programs we have,” he says. “There are inmates who make a change, who make a decision to really think about their actions. They get away from drugs and alcohol, and they can return to society and be good fathers, get stable jobs, go to work every day, and become productive citizens. We see that happening more and more.”

The door swings both ways

Parker believes he’s making a positive impact. Still, success in corrections work takes a toll. “It’s a very disciplined field of work. It’s not for everyone. It’s a lot of stress,” he says. “Each day, I depend on the grace of God and the support of my family. I am proud to say that neither has ever let me down.”

In this era of reality television, one way to better understand the pressures of corrections work is through the popular prison version of these shows, such as the Lockup series on MSNBC. “I think, depending on the content, they (the reality shows) can be a good information source,” he says. “They can give the public an insight on what it’s really like inside our prisons.” Parker was even the subject of a truTV documentary when he was at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. “I made sure the story they told was accurate,” he says. “It wasn’t something blown up or glamorous. It was just the facts.”

Reality for Tony Parker is that the prison door swings both ways as he enters and leaves Northwest Correctional Complex. He hopes the door closes behind inmates one last time as they leave for productive lives in society.