Skip navigation

More coverage of PLN's win in public records suit against CCA

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
More coverage of PLN's win in public records suit against CCA - Tennessean 2008

July 30, 2008

Prison operator CCA must open records, judge rules

Staff Writer

Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America must follow public records law and open its files for viewing, a Chancery Court judge ruled Tuesday, a decision that could lead to more transparency in a historically hidden industry.

Alex Friedmann, an ex-offender and vice president of advocacy group Private Corrections Institute, had filed suit after CCA denied his request for records about prison operations and lawsuits they were part of.

CCA, which operates the Metro Davidson County Detention Facility and six other detention facilities across Tennessee, maintained the company did not have to comply with public records requests because it is private.

Access to prison records could accomplish two main goals, said Michele Deitch, an expert on private prison issues and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin: shedding light on the operation of the private facilities and showing taxpayers how much money is spent on settlements with those who claim mistreatment.

"When the private sector says, 'We can do this cheaper and better,' people don't think about what happens if things go wrong," Deitch said. "Who pays for that? In fact, it does come back to the taxpayers and the government. We need that information for a fuller picture of the true cost of these prisons."

CCA plans to appeal the ruling, according to attorney Joe Welborn, who represented the company.

Public-private line blurs

It's too soon to say whether there will be national implications to the decision, said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. But as more governmental functions are turned over to private industry, he said, the issue of what documents remain public can get muddied.

"These issues will be litigated more and more," Policinski said. "Where does public responsibility and public visibility end, and a private institution's own records begin, when performing public functions and accepting public money?"

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled that CCA was a "functional equivalent" to a governmental entity, because the operations of jails and prisons are essential governmental functions, and most of their revenues are taxpayer-funded. She ordered the company to make all of its records available, except those sealed by a court order.

Andrew Clarke, attorney for Friedmann, said he kept his arguments simple because he felt the facts supported his client's assertion that CCA performs a governmental function.

"Sometimes it just is what it is," Clarke said.

'A layer of secrecy'

The chancellor has not yet ruled on whether to award attorney's fees to Friedmann. CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company is reserving comment until a final order has been issued.

CCA has been hammered in recent months by allegations of underplaying serious incidents in its jails and misrepresenting the circumstances of in-custody deaths. Much of the heat came after CCA's general counsel, Gus Puryear, was nominated to a federal judgeship.

The company's treatment of mentally ill inmates locally also was questioned after it was reported that an inmate hadn't left his cell or showered for nine months.

Friedmann's organization recently offered reward money for anyone who could shed light on the death of Estelle Richardson, who died in the Metro jail in 2004. CCA officials said that, because of a malfunction, there was no tape of the incident that led to Richardson's fatal injuries.

Friedmann served six years in a CCA-run facility before his release in 1999.

"This important ruling strips away a layer of secrecy that CCA has misused to conceal embarrassing and negative information from the public," Friedmann said.