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PLN associate editor profiled in article about anti-private prison activism

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor profiled in article about anti-private prison activism - Tennessean 2008

August 13, 2008

Former inmate champions prison reform

Friedmann battles Nashville-based CCA, privatization

Staff Writer

Alex Friedmann doesn't think people can see past his conviction, so he's the first one to bring it up.

He spent 10 years in a cell — six of them at a Corrections Corporation of America prison in Tennessee — for armed robbery and attempted murder.

"I was absolutely not cut out for a life of crime," Friedmann, 39, says. "And I was quite incompetent at it. I deserved the punishment. But punishment, technically, ends at some point. Society says it doesn't, and that lasts for the rest of your life. It follows you around like a legacy."

Now, years removed from prison, Friedmann is engaged in an ardent struggle against Nashville-based CCA, the nation's largest for-profit prison company. He is a self-described underdog, battling the multibillion-dollar corporation that has drawn nationwide criticism for its treatment of prisoners. He didn't like the way he was treated while he was incarcerated, and he has questioned whether CCA gave prompt medical attention to a friend who died while in CCA custody many years ago.

CCA, in turn, paints him as a less-than-credible advocate for prison reform and a pawn of unions that oppose privatized prisons like those run by CCA, which has 17,000 employees nationwide and holds more than 75,000 inmates.

"He is a former inmate convicted of armed robbery at Green Hills," said Louise Grant, a spokeswoman for CCA. "The fact that he shot at a father and a son is lost. He now works for a union-funded company.''

Still, Friedmann says prison reform is what defines his life.

"I admire people who devote their lives to causes — to saving whales, the environment, child abuse," he said. "This cause gives meaning to my life."

He's a CCA shareholder

In that role, Friedmann has single-handedly taken CCA to task over the years — even at the shareholder meetings. Friedmann owns one share of CCA stock, giving him the right to attend and ask questions at the meetings.

"What I'm saying is that CCA is for-profit and it colors their decision," he said. "It's their business model."

He is seeking access to CCA records. He won that access, albeit briefly, when a judge said that because the for-profit prison operates similar to a government entity, it should make its records open to the public, but CCA is appealing the judge's ruling.

Friedmann is vice president of Private Corrections Institute, which is against the privatization of correctional institutions and is supported by unions. He says he does not collect a paycheck in his role with Private Corrections Institute. The company has paid for his travel and he has been reimbursed for expenses.

He also is associate editor of Prison Legal News, working 60 hours a week reading and editing dozens of stories for the monthly publication, which looks at the nation's penal system.

Then he leaves his desk to hand out fliers asking for more information regarding the death of a CCA inmate. He went to Congress to testify against the federal judgeship nomination of Gus Puryear, CCA's general counsel, a battle he is even keener about.

He double-checked every answer Puryear gave to the Senate Judicial Committee. He investigated the general counsel's commission meetings and memberships in a country club, and he challenged a contradictory statement regarding the death of an inmate. He started a Web site,

His was 'a harsh crime'

Friedmann considers himself a private person despite the public battles he has waged against CCA.

During a lunch interview, he does not want to talk in any depth about his family, his personal life or religious affiliations. He is succinct. His father's family was Jewish, his mother a Southern Baptist.

Friedmann was born outside of Boston and left for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, with his parents as a 1-year-old only child. His father worked for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Co.

"I did not have to share my toys," he said jokingly as he eats a salad and waits for his pizza to cool down.

They lived in a compound with people from around the world. Years later, with extended family in Tennessee, Friedmann returned to the U.S. as a teen. It was the 1980s and he was not accustomed to American society, he said.

Caught in a downward spiral of greed, stupidity and his personal struggle to assimilate back to American life after being raised in Dhahran, the 18-year-old Friedmann armed himself with a gun and robbed a Green Hills store.

During the robbery he got into a gunfight with the store owner, who shot Friedmann in his left hand.

"It was a harsh introduction to the system, but I committed a harsh crime," he said.

Friedmann says he was able to get probation but still fouled up. His probation was revoked and he had to serve 10 years after he was busted for shoplifting.

In prison he read a number of books, including the classics and a couple that sparked his interest in activism: Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story based on a character who served 10 years in prison in Stalin's gulag.

He began writing and learning how to do research. He admired the in-depth investigative pieces produced by reporters. Today, he worries it's not done enough.

He has no social life, he says. His downtime consists of zipping around in his restored 1982 Corvette and working on computer systems. But he sees himself as a reporter and an activist.

CCA questions agenda

Nashville-based CCA sees him through a completely different lens.

CCA representatives say the name of a reputable, well-managed company has been sullied by a former convict who works for a union group against privatization — his real agenda against the prison company, according to spokeswoman Grant.

Friedmann has not limited his calls for reform to CCA.

He sees himself as an advocate for changes in the nation's criminal justice system and a voice for the 2.3 million prisoners housed around the country.

"This system is an abysmal failure," Friedmann said. "It doesn't achieve less crime, less victimization. There's increased recidivism and an increased amount of people in prison."

In Tennessee, Friedmann has filed a lawsuit challenging Tennessee's felon voting rights law, which bars ex-offenders from voting if they owe child support or court-ordered restitution.

Who better to fight the system, he says, than someone who's been in it.

"You have one shot to make a difference," he said. "You have to go all the way. You have to work (hard) to reach the goals you set according to what you believe."

Friedmann's standing should be based on his work, his dedication to activism and volunteering in the community, according to Glenda Lingo, coordinator of Parents in Prison at Charles Bass Correctional Complex and a teacher with the Inside/Out prison exchange program.

"He is brilliant, and I've worked with him in different capacities," Lingo said. "His research, his thinking on his feet, and his work with everybody in the community should be noted."