State senate takes on issues of cell phones in prison and recovery high schools

Published 9:19 am Monday, February 12, 2018

The pace quickened on Capitol Hill this week as state senators examined the budgets of ten agencies or departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. This includes a resolution unanimously adopted by the Senate State and Local Government Committee which seeks to address the public safety threat posed by contraband cell phone use by prison inmates.
Senate Joint Resolution 492, sponsored by Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), asks the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), major cellular providers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “to take a proactive and collaborative approach, in conjunction with correctional officials nationwide, to effectively disrupt the use of contraband wireless communication devices obtained by inmates.”
There were over 1,500 incidents with cell phones in Tennessee prisons last year.
Speaking in favor of the bill was Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, who told committee members that murders have been arranged and carried out on Tennessee correctional officers, criminal enterprises continue to thrive, victims have been stalked, witnesses have been threatened, escapes have been arranged and prison riots have been orchestrated all from within prison cells using contraband cellphones. He said these events are becoming common instances as more cellphones illegally infiltrate state correctional facilities.
“In years past, I never would have considered the issue of cell phones being a major problem in our prisons,” said Parker. “But, I will have to say that in the last 15 years it has become one of the most significant security threats that we have in our facilities.”
Introducing contraband into a correctional facility is a Class C felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval.
The Senate Education Committee approved major legislation this week which authorizes Local Education Agencies (LEA) to create recovery high schools for certain students with alcohol or drug abuse dependency like Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Major Depressive Episode (MDE). Senate Bill 1626, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), authorizes LEAs that open recovery schools to enroll eligible students, including those who are in another county.
“The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, substance abuse counselors, and mental health professionals, with each playing a critical role in supporting their students,” said Sen. Gresham. “This bill will help students keep up with their studies, while having the best supports possible to help them recover.”
The bill authorizes the State Board of Education to promulgate additional rules and policies in consultation with the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to ensure best practices are employed as schools are authorized. It will also allow LEAs to collaborate with other school districts to establish a school to serve their students.
Introduction into a recovery high school would be voluntary under the bill. Students who graduate from the recovery school would receive a diploma from the high school they attended prior to enrollment to lessen the possibility of a stigma being attached. Grades earned would also be transferrable to other high schools.
Research shows students who attend treatment and go back into their normal high school have about a 70 percent chance of relapse. That number drops to approximately 30 percent when the student attends a recovery school after treatment. In addition, a recovery school in Houston found that about 98 percent of the students who attended had planned to drop out of school due to their addiction. After attending a recovery school, 90 percent of the students graduated, and over 80 percent went on to seek a post-secondary degree.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week to help persons with disabilities have as much independence in their decision-making as possible when a court is considering conservatorships or other actions to protect their best interest. Senate Bill 264 defines “least restrictive alternatives,” a term which is already in Tennessee law, as “techniques and processes that preserve as many decision-making rights as possible for the person with a disability.”
“This legislation helps to ensure that when a conservatorship is pursued, it is, in fact, the least restrictive alternative for that person as required under current law,” said Senator Massey, sponsor of the bill. “This generation of people with disabilities have more opportunities than previous generations. They are educated with their peers without disabilities; go to college; get jobs, get married; go out with friends; live fully included lives in their communities and they need an option that supports them to make decisions without removing their rights.”
“Defining it in law ensures that all parties — families, attorneys, judges, educators, health care practitioners, and others — recognize it is not the only option for many of those who have disabilities,” she added.
Research supports that when people are empowered to make their own decisions, to the maximum extent possible, they are better able to recognize abusive situations and surround themselves with healthy relationships. Massey said the courts are committed to working with the disability community to provide training for judges on how least restrictive alternatives can be employed to maximize independence for people with disabilities, while minimizing the risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
The bill, which received unanimous approval in the committee, now goes to the full Senate for final consideration.

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