Private prison operator CoreCivic has donated roughly $146,000 to the campaigns of 65 current members of the Tennessee General Assembly since 2006, according to records from the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
A review of state campaign finance records from the past eleven years reveals that CoreCivic has given money to the campaigns of legislators of both parties and in both chambers of the state legislature through its political action committee and through direct corporate donations.
Formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville-based business, founded in 1983, is the largest private corrections operator in the country. It houses over 66,000 prisoners in 61 federal, state and local facilities across the United States. As of March 2017 over 7,500 inmates were incarcerated in the four CoreCivic-managed prisons in Tennessee.
The single largest recipient of campaign funds from the company since 2006 is Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Democrat whose district includes part of Hardeman and Madison counties. CoreCivic has donated to Shaw every year since 2006 for a total of $9,000. Shaw’s district contains two CoreCivic facilities: the Hardeman County Correctional Center and the Whiteville Correctional facility. The state senator from the area, Republican Dolores Gresham, is the second largest recipient of campaign funds from the company.
Rep. Shaw defended his relationship with the company in an interview by highlighting what he saw as its positive impact in his district, both socially and economically.
“They’re active in our community and donate to worthy causes, plus they provide a huge payroll for us. We’re a distressed community,” Shaw said.
Shaw also claimed that private prisons made criminal justice reform less expensive because the state could more easily walk away from private prisons than state-run facilities.
“I‘m not out advocating for private prisons or even state prisons, I’m out advocating for a way to reduce the crime rate and reduce the recidivism rate but at the same time we have invested a lot of money into brick and mortar, “Shaw said. “So if we have to close facilities it would be cheaper for a private facility to close on our part than it would be if it were one of our own prisons. We have to look at the total picture.”
“CoreCivic actually incarcerates people cheaper than [the state] can do it. To my knowledge there is no cost with opting for that cheaper option.”
Asked about conditions at CoreCivic facilities in the state, Rep. Shaw said he was satisfied.
Sen. Gresham and CoreCivic could not be reached for comment.
While few legislators received as many donations from the company as Shaw or Gresham, CoreCivic’s influence in state politics is still “significant,” according to private prison critic Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News.
“CCA spends freely on the state level through campaign contributions and lobbying, and state lawmakers that have (or want) private prisons in their districts, which bring money and jobs, are especially susceptible to private prison influence,”said Friedmann.
Friedmann, who spent 6 years incarcerated in CoreCivic’s South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tennessee, added “Under our system of government, campaign contributions are a legalized form of bribery.”
The company has been subject to numerous complaints by advocacy groups, state governments and the federal government over its treatment of prisoners and conditions within its facilities.
CoreCivic’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tennessee, the largest prison in the state, had to temporarily stop accepting new inmates in May 2016 due to “serious issues” with violence and understaffing, according to a memo from the company to the Tennessee Department of Corrections first reported by the Associated Press.
Three female visitors to the CoreCivic-managed South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tennessee sued the company in 2015, claiming they were forced to undergo strip searches to prove they were menstruating after attempting to bring tampons into the prison.
According to an August 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Justice”s Office of Inspector General that looked at private federal prisons managed by CCA and two other companies, private prisons suffer from more violence, contraband and inmate complaints than federally managed facilities. Shortly after the publication of that report the Department of Justice under President Obama announced its intention not to renew any federal private prison contracts, but that plan was quickly canceled by President Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.