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CCA Shareholder Resolution Filed to Reduce ‘High Cost’ of Prisoner Phone Calls

Press release from Prison Legal News; December 2, 2013:

Nashville, TN – Just before Thanksgiving, a shareholder resolution was filed with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – the nation’s largest for-profit prison company – that seeks to reduce the high cost of phone calls made by prisoners at CCA facilities.

Prison phone rates are typically much higher than non-prison rates, and a 15-minute call from a prisoner to his or her family can cost up to $17.30. Such exorbitant costs make it difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with their families and children on a regular basis; an estimated 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. The costs of prison phone calls are usually borne by prisoners’ families, not the prisoners themselves.

In September, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order capping the cost of long distance prison phone calls. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn remarked that “Studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism. Making these calls more affordable can facilitate all of these objectives and more.” However, the FCC’s order has not yet gone into effect and does not apply to in-state prison phone calls.

Thus, Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a non-profit organization dedicating to protecting the human rights of prisoners and detainees, submitted a shareholder resolution that asks CCA to reduce the cost of phone calls made by prisoners held at the company’s correctional and immigration detention facilities.

HRDC is a co-founder and coordinator of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, in conjunction with the Center for Media Justice/Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and Working Narratives. The Campaign was instrumental in the FCC’s decision to take action against high prison phone rates and other abuses by the prison phone industry.

The shareholder resolution requests that CCA not accept “commissions” – kickbacks paid by prison phone companies, usually based on a percentage of revenue generated by prisoners’ phone calls. Commission kickbacks correlate with higher prison phone rates, and eight states (including California and New York) have banned prison phone commissions.

Further, the resolution asks that CCA “give the greatest consideration to the overall lowest” costs when evaluating or entering into prison phone contracts at its facilities. The resolution notes that at one CCA-operated facility in Tennessee, the company receives a 48% kickback and that a 15-minute call from the facility “can cost as much as $9.75.” CCA received $205,136.78 in prison phone commissions at that one facility in fiscal year 2012 alone.

“As the largest private prison and detention corporation in the country, CCA has a responsibility to ensure that the families of incarcerated individuals are able to maintain the vital relationships needed in the rehabilitation process,” stated Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice. “For immigrants in detention, a phone call can be the difference between securing adequate legal representation or not being able to see their families again.”

If the resolution receives a majority vote of CCA’s shareholders, it will require the company to ensure its prison phone contracts comply with the terms of the resolution within 180 days, and to report to shareholders the phone rates and commissions at its facilities on an annual basis.

Recently, CCA vice president Kim White wrote that rehabilitation and reentry programs are a “top priority” for the company. “It is important to us to see inmates grow during their incar-ceration, offering them the chance at a better life for themselves and their families after their release,” she said. “This is part of our responsibility to society as a corrections company, and it’s also essential to serving our government partners and taxpayers well.”

“This resolution gives CCA an opportunity to prove they are truly interested in rehabilitating prisoners and reducing recidivism,” Friedmann stated. “By decreasing the high costs of prison phone calls, the company can promote greater communication between prisoners and their families and children, which research has shown results in improved post-release outcomes and lower rates of recidivism. Or, if CCA is primarily concerned about its profit margin, it will object to the resolution and try to prevent it from going to a shareholder vote.”

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Corrections Corp. of America Loses Another TN Court of Appeals Ruling

Press release from the Human Rights Defense Center; March 2, 2013:

Nashville, TN – On February 28, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued its second ruling in a long-running lawsuit filed under the state’s Public Records Act against Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit private prison company. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the lower court, holding that CCA must produce documents that it had refused to disclose, as well as pay attorney fees and costs in the case.

The suit was filed by Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), a nonprofit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues. In 2007, CCA denied Friedmann’s request for records related to litigation filed against CCA and for reports or audits that found contract violations by the company, among other documents. The Chancery Court ruled in Friedmann’s favor, finding that CCA was the functional equivalent of a government agency, and ordered CCA to produce the requested records.

CCA appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed in September 2009, noting, “With all due respect to CCA, this Court is at a loss as to how operating a prison could be considered anything less than a governmental function.”

Following remand, CCA produced a number of the requested records, including hundreds of pages from reports and audits in which CCA had been found in violation of or non-compliance with its contractual obligations to operate prisons and jails in Tennessee. However, CCA refused to produce copies of settlement agreements, verdicts or releases in cases where the company had paid damages or other monetary amounts to resolve lawsuits or claims. CCA also refused to release database printouts listing such settlements.

On December 1, 2011, Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled against CCA, holding that as the functional equivalent of a government agency it could not keep secret its settlement documents, nor its database printouts listing settlements involving the company. The court ordered CCA to pay $28,367.50 in Friedmann’s attorney fees, and the company again appealed.

“CCA has fought tooth-and-nail against disclosing these records for more than four years,” Friedmann said at the time. “This would not have occurred with a government agency, and evidences a significant problem with prison privatization: private prison companies like CCA prefer to operate in secret, with little transparency, and are not accountable to the public.”

On February 28, 2013, the Court of Appeals again ruled against CCA in the company’s second appeal. The appellate court wrote that it “respectfully disagree[d] with CCA’s conclusion” that the company did not have to produce its settlement-related records because such records were not part of its official business related to running prisons and jails. According to the appellate court, “settlement agreements are considered public records under the Public Records Act. Thus, as the functional equivalent of a government agency, CCA was required to turn over settlement agreements related to the operation of the correctional facilities unless otherwise provided by state law.” The Court noted that “the vast majority of case law clearly flies in the face of [CCA’s] interpretation.”

Further, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s award of $28,367.50 in attorney fees against CCA, finding that Chancellor Bonnyman had properly found that “CCA acted in bad faith in its refusal to disclose the settlement agreements.” The appellate court also ordered CCA to pay Friedmann’s attorney fees incurred in the appeal, and assessed costs against the company. The case was remanded for determination of the total amount of fees that CCA must pay. CCA was represented by Joseph F. Welborn III and Jason W. Callen.

“Perhaps now, after almost five years of litigation, CCA will finally produce the records it should have produced all along pursuant to the state’s public records law,” Friedmann stated. “CCA officials apparently think they are above the law even though their company performs the governmental function of running prisons and jails, and is paid with public taxpayer funds. CCA is one of the least transparent companies when it comes to public accountability, which is very disturbing given that it incarcerates people for the purpose of generating profit.”

The case is Friedmann v. CCA, Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville, No. M2012-00212- COA-R3-CV. Friedmann was represented on appeal by Memphis attorney Andrew Clarke.

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National Human Rights Non-Profit Accuses TDOC of Violent Incident Cover-ups

Press release from the Human Rights Defense Center; February 21, 2013:

Nashville, TN – – The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of people who are incarcerated, announced today that the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) is covering-up and misclassifying violent incidents in an apparent attempt to conceal rising levels of institutional violence in state prisons.

In September 2012, HRDC released data compiled from public records requests that revealed violent incidents in state prisons had increased approximately 20% during the first 18 months of TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield’s tenure, from January 2011 through June 2012, compared with the year before he was appointed by Governor Haslam. Such incidents included prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and institutional disturbances; of particular concern was an apparent increase in assaults on staff members.

The increased violence coincided with a number of policy changes implemented by Schofield that were widely perceived as being punitive and militaristic – including requiring prisoners to walk in a single-file line under staff escort, a specified distance apart, in silence, with their hands out of their pockets (even in cold weather); daily cell inspections during which prisoners must stand by their cells without talking, reading or doing anything else until all cells in a unit have been inspected; stricter property rules; and standing or sitting counts held at 5:00 to 6:00am.

Following a September 18, 2012 HRDC press release on increasing levels of violence within TDOC facilities, HRDC began receiving letters from both prisoners and prison staff indicating that the TDOC was covering-up violent incidents by either not issuing disciplinary “write-ups” to prisoners who engaged in violence, or issuing write-ups for non-violent offenses.

Specifically, HRDC was contacted by several prisoners and TDOC employees regarding an incident that occurred at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) on October 9, 2012. That incident reportedly involved multiple prisoners who assaulted prison staff, including the facility’s warden, Jerry Lester, during a morning cell inspection. Shortly afterwards all Tennessee prisons were placed on temporary lockdown statewide.

According to documents produced by the TDOC pursuant to a public records request, multiple WTSP prisoners had approached staff members, including Assistant Warden (AWO) Robert Henry, “in a threatening manner as to cause injury.” Staff responded by spraying them with pepper spray; at least three prison employees were hit with pepper spray during the brawl. The prisoners were identified as gang members and one report stated they “acted in concert … in their assault on staff.” Another report noted that one prisoner had pushed AWO Henry “in the chest area,” while a separate document stated “a fight broke out” during the morning inspection.

Although multiple sources indicated that Warden Lester was involved and had suffered injuries, none of the records produced by the TDOC stated that he was present, nor did he file an incident report himself. The TDOC refused to produce video footage of the WTSP incident pursuant to a public records request. All nine prisoners implicated in the October 9 incident were transferred to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI).

However, those prisoners were not charged with violent disciplinary offenses; instead, they all received write-ups for participation in Security Threat Group (STG) activity – which, according to TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter, is considered a non-violent disciplinary charge.

Therefore, although there was an incident involving nine prisoners that resulted in an “assault on staff” and a “fight,” with the prisoners being pepper sprayed and later transferred to a maximum security facility and placed in segregation, they were not charged with assault, fighting or other violent disciplinary offenses.

This appears to validate other reports received by HRDC that prison officials are downgrading or misclassifying violent incidents so that data entered on TOMIS – the TDOC’s internal computer system which tracks prison-related information – does not reflect increasing levels of violence under Commissioner Schofield’s tenure.

According to a TDOC employee who contacted HRDC on February 19, 2013 but did not want to be identified due to fear of retaliation, “In order to make it appear that assaults on staff and inmates are not increasing, Commissioner Schofield … has ordered wardens to reduce the number of incidents reported on TOMIS by changing the code of how an incident is documented. For example, a report filed on TOMIS documenting an assault on staff will still report an assault on a staff member within the body of the report; however, the incident will not be coded as an assault on staff thereby cleansing the data so that assaults appear to be down or steady rather than increasing as they actually are.”

“The answer to rising levels of violence – particularly violence against staff members – is not to cover-up the reporting of such incidents,” stated HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann, who served time in Tennessee’s prison system in the 1990s. “Rather, the answer is to ascertain the underlying causes of the violence and develop solutions accordingly.”

Meanwhile, violent incidents continue to occur. According to a January 16, 2013 memo from Warden Michael Donahue at the Hardeman County Correctional Facility (HCCF), which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America, “Over the past few days we have had some incidents at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable. Last week, one of my staff was assaulted in the chow hall for no reason…. In addition on Tuesday, January 15, 2013, we had two separate incidents of gang fight activities in the hallway and chow hall.”

As a result, the facility was placed on lockdown. The lockdown was lifted a week later but the prison was again put on lockdown status on January 28, 2013 due to “ongoing conflicts with gang activity and violence against staff at this facility that are both alarming and totally unacceptable,” according to a memo from HCCF Acting Warden Terrence Dickerson. The second lockdown extended into February.

Since the Tennessee legislature dissolved the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections in June 2011 there has been no direct oversight over the state prison system, except through the Governor’s office and the standing legislative Judiciary Committees – which, despite being informed about increasing violence in TDOC facilities, have taken no apparent action.

An article concerning the TDOC’s cover-up and misclassification of violent incidents in state prisons will appear in the March 2013 issue of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center.