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HRDC rebuts CoreCivic's lies, excuses re murders at the company's TN prisons

Daily Memphian, July 17, 2019.

Prisoner advocates say state numbers contradict CoreCivic defense

Updated: July 16, 2019 3:43 PM CT | Published: July 16, 2019

NASHVILLE – State figures debunk the claims of Tennessee’s private prison operator that its murder rate is higher than in state-run prisons because it houses more violent offenders, according to prisoner advocates.

CoreCivic blamed 10 murders over the past five years at four prisons – compared to five at 10 state-run prisons – on a higher population of violent inmates at the facilities it operates, as well as the level of security.

But statistics from the Tennessee Department of Correction show state-run prisons house twice as many inmates convicted of murder, 2,887, as CoreCivic correctional facilities, 1,132, and nearly twice as many for violent crimes overall.

Figures from a state report for 2018 show TDOC facilities held 6,448 prisoners convicted of violent crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, sex offenses and assault, compared with 3,588 at CoreCivic-run prisons, 1.8 times as many.

The release by the Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective also points out state-run prisons have a higher “concentration” of prisoners convicted of homicide, 20.6%, to 15.25% at CoreCivic-run prisons.

In its initial response to the report on homicides, CoreCivic contended almost all of its population is made up of violent offenders held in medium-security facilities and, thus, is more likely to have a “higher propensity” for violent incidents.

The figures, however, show 17,356 prisoners housed at medium-security levels in state-run facilities compared with an average daily population of 7,655 at CoreCivic-operated prisons. Nearly 3,000 prisoners across the system were classified as minimum security, according to the advocacy groups.

In addition, CoreCivic said the groups’ comparison didn’t include female prisoners. But women make up only 1,000 inmates statewide, about 5% of the total prison population, according to the advocacy groups’ release.

“Even removing those 1,000 female prisoners from the prison homicide data, there were still 10 murders at CoreCivic prisons, and the homicide rate at the company’s prisons is still more than four times higher than at TDOC facilities that only house male prisoners,” the release states.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, and Jeannie Alexander, director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, want the state to stop contracting with private prison operators, saying CoreCivic’s main goal is to boost its profit.

The state is paying CoreCivic $176.9 million this year alone to run four prisons.

Asked about the murder numbers last week, CoreCivic questioned Friedmann’s motive, saying he has served time for attempted murder.

Friedmann pointed out the company spent much of its rebuttal criticizing him and putting forth “easily-disprovable lies.”

“CoreCivic does not dispute that the murders in its prisons occurred, and its response is a callous insult to the family members of the prisoners who were killed in its facilities due to the company’s failure to protect them from harm – that is its most basic responsibility,” Friedmann said.

The private prison operator did not deny the statistics but defended itself from the Human Rights Defense Center’s second report by saying Friedmann is inaccurate in calling its statements “false.”

“This is not thoughtful, serious work done by professionals with expertise in research design or the corrections profession. These are paid special interests who are trying to score political points at the expense of our company’s reputation and the hard work that our employees do every day to help keep communities safe and improve the lives of those in our care,” said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic.

The two groups should look at more factors, such as length of sentence and type of homicide, when compiling a report, the CoreCivic response said.

“They did not consider concentration or dilution of these populations. In addition, the ‘analysis’ does not consider facility-by-facility concentrations. Lastly, they don’t even begin to scratch the surface on how the populations would be managed,” Gilchrist said, adding Friedmann’s analysis involves “incomplete data.”

Despite CoreCivic’s defenses, Gov. Bill Lee said recently his administration will look at the “discrepancy” in homicides between CoreCivic-run prisons and TDOC-operated prisons and correct any mistakes.

Lee hinted that the report on murders could play a role in whether the state renews a contract with CoreCivic to run South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton.

“We’ll evaluate any and every contract for state services every time their contract comes up to make sure I feel confident that Tennesseans are getting a good deal. We will evaluate CoreCivic’s performance and their costs, and if it isn’t adequate, we will make decisions appropriately,” Lee said recently.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who serves on the Government Operations Committee that reviews prison operations, believes private prison companies are motivated by profit.

The Memphis Democrat also criticized the state’s contract, which is based on the number of prisoners housed by CoreCivic rather than factors such as rehabilitating prisoners and keeping them from returning.

“One of the problems we have is the revolving door where you have state officials leaving and going to work for the private industry,” Hardaway said.

Derrick Schofield, who led the Department of Correction for five years before stepping down amid criticism in 2016, took a job with Florida-based Geo Group.

He was replaced by Tony Parker, who was promoted as legislators took a hard line on TDOC and CoreCivic in late 2017 following a state comptroller’s report pointing out short staffing and poor operations at CoreCivic prisons, notably Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility near Hartsville.

All told, the state has fined CoreCivic more than $2 million for numerous problems, including improper prisoner counts, inadequate staffing, improper use of solitary confinement and accusations its guards used excessive force.

Hardaway said low guard salaries is one of the biggest problems in the correction system, along with outdated facilities and poor surveillance equipment.

“If you don’t have individuals you’re paying to do the job, they’re less likely to put themselves at risk to do the job,” he said.

The Department of Correction has a budget of more than $1 billion, with about $380 million going toward payroll and more than $167 for private prisons. The department had about 3,470 security positions in 2018 but had a 14% vacancy rate, up substantially from 4.3% in 2009. The starting salary for a correctional officer was $27,329, ranking it second to last in the Southern Legislative Conference, just ahead of Mississippi.