A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found female inmates were able to pull off an elaborate beauty pageant inside a state prison with the approval of the unit supervisor and with correctional officers watching.
A former worker in the prison said she went to her supervisors before the pageant to warn them of the event, but it occurred anyway.
The pageant is the latest outrageous behavior of those who are supposed to be serving hard time inside state prisons uncovered by the Channel 4 I-Team.
The event also raises questions as to why documents show an inmate was injured in the process, but a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction denied anyone was hurt.
State disciplinary actions reveal four employees, including three correctional officers – one man and two women - and the male unit supervisor were suspended for 10 days without pay.
Angelia Bess, a former counselor at the prison, said she ultimately quit after the pageant.
"It's flabbergasting. It's totally unacceptable," Bess said. "This is not a reality show. You are in prison."
And like reality shows, the pageant was caught on video, but the state refuses to release it for what it calls "security reasons."
"They don't want you to see. From everyone I talked to who saw the video, they just walked out and shook their head. It is that bad," Bess said.
A spokeswoman for TDOC won't comment on the incident or give any details, saying it is under investigation.
But once the Channel 4 I-Team obtained the names of the suspended employees, the state had to release their disciplinary records.
Those records and a letter from the inmate crowned queen of the pageant tell the story.
The records read that on Jan. 31, several female inmates participated in an unapproved one-hour inmate pageant and that inmates from another section of the prison were allowed to come in and watch.
Though it is called "unapproved," the disciplinary record for the unit supervisor said he had knowledge of the event and did nothing to stop it.
The disciplinary records read, "There was mass chaos, numerous occurrences of uproar, cheering and applause from other inmates."
The records state that numerous security violations were noted and that correctional officers "observed, not taking any action to stop it, and failing to report it to shift commanders."
Bess spoke with inmates involved in the pageant before the incident and with staff afterwards, and a second source confirmed the details. The Channel 4 I-Team tracked down the inmate who was crowned queen, and she wrote us a letter providing details of the pageant.
"There was a catwalk set up by the tables," Bess said. "The inmates, the first runner-ups had to twerk to determine who the first runner-up is."
"Who was going to judge?" asked chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.
"The staff," Bess said.
"The correctional officers?" Finley asked.
"Yes," Bess said.
The pageant queen wrote that the inmates came up with the idea of the pageant and that they got it all approved by the officer in charge, and that she received roses, a sash and a crown.
Bess, who as a counselor was teaching a class to women to develop better social skills to prepare them for the outside world, said the pageant was a major step backwards.
"This is, in no way, reinforcing what they're supposed to be learning," Bess said.
Bess, an additional source and the queen all said an inmate was injured in the process.
The queen wrote, "A lady ended up falling out of a chair and knocked herself out."
When the Channel 4 I-Team asked the state about the injury, a spokeswoman emailed back, writing in quotes, "No one was injured."
But the disciplinary record of the unit supervisor reads that one of the inmates was injured when attempting to climb over some chairs and that medical had to be called to treat one of the injured inmates.
Bess said she also found it strange that on the day the Channel 4 I-Team first requested details of the incident, a memo was sent out hours later, reading that from that day forward, only female guards at the prison were to guard female inmates.
"Because you sent the email to the department, inquiring about it," Bess said.
The Channel 4 I-Team repeatedly asked for an interview with the TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield, as well as the warden of that prison, but those requests were denied.
But Schofield did send us a statement, reading in part:
"The activity was not unlawful although the conduct of the inmates, as well as the staff members involved, violated administrative policies [...] When employees fail to follow policy, it is the warden's responsibility to ensure appropriate corrective action occurs. I feel the action taken was sufficient."
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