Tennessee governor takes note of HRDC report on murders at private prisons
Governor says private prison operator will be held accountable for higher murder rate
NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he will hold the state’s private prison operator accountable amid a report the number of murders at CoreCivic-run facilities was twice that at Tennessee Department of Correction prisons.
The governor told reporters his office will use data and other means to make sure the state and its vendors are providing quality services – in this case, running prisons effectively.
“Whenever there’s a discrepancy in the way those are being delivered, then we will look at that and make certain that we correct those mistakes, if they are there,” Lee said.
The state is paying CoreCivic $176.9 million this fiscal year to operate four prisons: Trousdale Turner, South Central, Hardeman County and Whiteville correctional facilities.
Two prisoner advocacy groups, the Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective, reported this week 10 inmates were killed from March 2014 through June 2019 at the four CoreCivic prisons compared to five inmate homicides at 10 state-run prisons. The rate at CoreCivic-run prisons was higher even though it houses about 30% of the state’s prison population, according to the report.
Lee, who has made criminal justice reform one of his main initiatives, acknowledged he is “absolutely” concerned about how CoreCivic is running prisons.
“I have an interest, for certain, to make sure that the services are being delivered by CoreCivic to the highest level … and (to an) equally high level that they’re being delivered at the state,” he said. “And if they’re not, then we certainly will take steps to correct that.”
In response to the report, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway said the state will continue to struggle with prisons if it doesn’t find a way to measure their effectiveness and hold them accountable.
The Memphis Democrat argued it is nearly impossible to shift prisoners from a “jungle atmosphere” filled with murders, beatings and sexual assaults and return them to a “civilized society” without making major changes in programs.
Hardaway serves on the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee, which opted to extend the Department of Correction’s operations for only two years in 2017, mainly because of a bad report by the Comptroller’s Office on the company’s operations. The committee is expected to review TDOC again this fall.
Asked if the groups’ report this week would be a strike against CoreCivic as the state considers whether to renew its contract to run South Central in Clifton, Lee said: “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.”
The Tennessee Department of Correction responded to the report this week by saying inmates are growing increasingly violent and the number of gang members in state prisons is increasing.
A TDOC spokeswoman said the fact three of four CoreCivic-run prisons are medium-security facilities has to be considered because inmates in a general population tend to have a higher rate of violent incidents than those in maximum-security facilities.
CoreCivic attacked Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, pointing out he served prison time and calling the numbers skewed for political purposes.
The company also argued most of its inmate population has more inmates convicted of murder and other violent crimes and, thus, has a higher “propensity” for violence compared to TDOC’s prisons that house nonviolent inmates. It also claims the report failed to take into account CoreCivic holds only male prisoners and no women.
Nevertheless, the state has fined CoreCivic more than $2 million for poor operations, including short staffing and failure to fill out logs, improper prisoner counts, incorrect use of solitary confinement and accusations its guards used excessive force.
Much of CoreCivic’s response didn’t wash with Hardaway.
“That excuse that it’s the nature of the inmates and the number of inmates and how they’re handling those inmates, that’s just an admission that you’re not doing your job,” Hardaway said.
The company should do whatever is necessary to control inmates, whether it means hiring more personnel, using better surveillance technology, adopting different programs, or moving and housing prisoners differently, he said.
Ultimately, however, the state needs to reconsider its use of privately run prisons, Hardaway contended. He pointed out CoreCivic’s contract is based on housing a certain number of prisoners, without incentive to keep them from returning to prison.
“There are so many different dynamics at work here. This isn’t a simple thing,” Hardaway said. “But some things just aren’t meant to be privatized. And the justice system is one of them.”
Using private prisons make no more sense, he said, than privatizing judges and paying them by the number of cases they hear each day.