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Editorial lauds PLN's public records case against CCA in Tennessee

Knoxville News Sentinel, Jan. 1, 2010.
Editorial lauds PLN's public records case against CCA in Tennessee - Knoxville News Sentinel 2010

Editorial: Chalk two up for open government

Knoxville News Sentinel

Staff Reports

Sunday, March 14, 2010

By refusing to hear an appeal in a public records case earlier this month, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the legal - and common-sense - principle that citizens have a fundamental right to monitor work done on their behalf.

The Court of Appeals ruled last year that a private company managing a prison or jail is the "functional equivalent" of a government agency, which makes it subject to Tennessee laws on public records.

The Supreme Court rightly determined that the Appeals Court hit the bull's eye.

The case in question is a lawsuit filed by former prisoner Alex Friedman, who now is an editor for the magazine Prison Legal News, against Corrections Corporation of America. CCA operates the state's South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, Tenn., and several jails across the Volunteer State.

In April 2007, Friedman submitted a records request to CCA under the Public Records Act seeking information on litigation and other complaints lodged against the company as a result of operations at those facilities.

CCA refused, arguing that as a private company it was not bound by the Public Records Act. Friedman sued in Davidson County Chancery Court and emerged victorious. CCA appealed and lost again.

According to the state Constitution, incarcerating prisoners is the exclusive duty of the government. The Private Prison Contracting Act of 1986 allows the state to outsource prison management to the private sector.

In a previous decision, the state Supreme Court has written that such a delegation of responsibilities shouldn't subvert the public's right to scrutinize a contractor: "When a private entity's relationship with the government is so extensive that the entity serves as the functional equivalent of a governmental agency, the accountability created by public oversight should be preserved."

CAA maintained it wasn't the functional equivalent of a government agency, but the Appeals Court rejected that claim and the Supreme Court refused even to hear it.

"With all due respect to CAA," Appeals Court Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote in his opinion on Friedman's case, "this Court is at a loss as to how operating a state prison could be considered anything less than a governmental function."

We agree. Government can outsource the work, but along with accepting public money comes the responsibility to be accountable to the taxpayers.

Friedman didn't get all he wanted. The Public Records Act allows for exemptions, and some of the records he requested are off-limits under the Private Prison Contracting Act. The trial court must now decide if other records he is seeking also are exempt.

The courts, though, have upheld the principle that the people's work is the public's business.