CCA's Dark Days 

Hostages, riots, angry protestors, a $60 million lawsuit and a federal investigation plague one Nashville company

Hostages, riots, angry protestors, a $60 million lawsuit and a federal investigation plague one Nashville company

On Monday night, over 250 people crammed into a middle school gymnasium in tiny Charlotte, Tenn., just east of Nashville. It was the second public hearing in as many weeks about an unexpectedly controversial issue that's currently pitting residents and officials of Charlotte against Dickson County's sheriff and several of its 12 commissioners. A large number of Charlottians are up in arms about the county's plan to let Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) build a 600-bed private jail in their 1,200-person town. Private prisons are immoral, newly minted opponents say, because they make a profit from social ills, they bring other states' most violent offenders into small towns, and the jobs they provide are low-paying, with few benefits and little room for advancement. In Charlotte, the message is clear: go away, CCA.

There was a time not long ago when small towns like Charlotte would line up around the block to get a private prison inside their borders. The CCA-led prison industry, booming in the 1990s, brought tons of jobs to cash-strapped towns in exchange for comparatively little in infrastructure. But times have changed. In recent months, CCA has been forced to put out fires—literally—during prison riots, and then it's tried to extinguish the public relations fires they leave in their wake. Government reports have identified troubling levels of mismanagement at CCA. At least one lawsuit blames the company for murder. The Nashville-based company's chief operating officer resigned abruptly in August. And now CCA is facing noisy public opposition just 30 miles away from its corporate headquarters. It's been a hard few months indeed.

Prisons can be violent places, but in recent months, CCA facilities across the country have played host to a series of disturbing violent incidents. A federal investigation is now underway into the murder of Estelle Richardson, an inmate who died after an altercation with a guard or guards in her Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility cell July 4. The 34-year-old mother of two, behind bars for food stamp fraud and probation violation, was killed by blunt-force trauma to the head; her autopsy showed a fractured skull, four broken ribs and liver damage. She had been isolated from other inmates the entire time, and four CCA guards remain on paid administrative leave while the criminal investigation continues.

What started as a routine Metro Police homicide investigation, which would traditionally lead the district attorney to file criminal charges against a suspect or suspects, has become a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation. The feds got the case for possible prosecution under a federal law that prohibits abuse by "any person acting under color of law." One attorney the Scene contacted, however, said defense attorneys could argue that because CCA is a corporation, its officers are private citizens and not de facto agents of the state. Such are the ambiguities of privatization.

One legal challenge CCA will certainly face, however, is the $60 million civil rights lawsuit being filed on behalf of Richardson's two children—ages 14 and 6—against CCA, the four guards and their supervisors. Different lawyers, including Blair Durham (son of Bart), have been haggling with various family members over who is the rightful counsel, and the now-reconciled attorneys are expected to jointly file an amended complaint in U.S. District Court soon.

The Richardson murder is only one of CCA's recent public embarrassments. On July 20, as many as 500 inmates ransacked the company's Crowley County Correctional Facility in Colorado, setting fires, damaging doors, windows and electronics, injuring inmates and trapping staff. No one was killed, although several inmates were taken to the hospital, some with serious injuries.

A 179-page report that the Colorado Department of Corrections released in October strongly criticized the private firm's management of the situation and the day-to-day operations of the prison. It noted that inmates from three states were being held in the Crowley County prison and that disparities in their treatment—as dictated by different CCA contracts with different state governments—contributed to the tensions that eventually flared out of control. It said the Colorado facility was understaffed and poorly trained; living units were poorly constructed; food service didn't meet state requirements; prison management was ill-prepared to deal with the situation (in one instance waiting for orders from the Green Hills corporate office before deploying tear gas); and prison officials had months of advance notice, in the form of written reports, that trouble was brewing.

The report concludes that the July event "began with a disturbance which, in retrospect, was not responded to as quickly and effectively as possible, thus developing into a riot." It recommends greater contractual authority and supervision of private prison contracts. The state of Colorado has billed CCA $385,624.95 for its expenses on the night of the riot, in addition to the cost of repairing massive damage to the Crowley County facility. CCA pledged full cooperation in the wake of the riot, firing or reassigning 37 staff members, including warden Brent Crouse.

A day after the Colorado uprising, there was an hourlong riot at a Mississippi CCA facility. Then, on Sept. 5, three nurses and a guard were taken hostage at the CCA-run Bay County Jail in Panama City, Fla., before a SWAT team and CCA special operations officers regained control of the facility the next morning. An Associated Press report cited "a history of broken and jammed locks" in the wing taken over by inmates, who demanded cigarettes, pizza and cell phones in exchange for two hostages. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, inmates said they took hostages to "draw attention to the physical conditions of the jail operations and to see them improved."

Nine days later, a handful of inmates at the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., attacked a wooden guard tower, prompting a two-hour riot in which fires were set, furniture, paperwork and bathroom equipment were destroyed and windows were broken. Twenty-three inmates have since been indicted in that incident; at the time of the riot, the facility held 400 Kentucky prisoners and 400 Vermont prisoners.

A Kentucky Department of Corrections report documented low morale among staff and inmates alike as well as arbitrary, disruptive revocations of privileges and disparities in the treatment of prisoners. (Again, CCA has different contracts with Vermont and Kentucky.) Changes from the company's corporate office, a suspension of contractually required programming (for Vermonters) due to lack of staffing and failed communication were all cited in the state report. State officials recommended that CCA be fined $10,000 for failing to have two emergency response teams ready and advised them to fill 37 vacant positions immediately.

"CCA is developing a new focus on communication from top to bottom," CCA spokeswoman Louise Chickering says. "We feel very confident in some corrective action plans that we are now preparing to better manage some of these incidents." She also claims that the report from Colorado, in particular, errs in some places. "The...report contains what we believe are many discrepancies and perceptual variances." Just what that means is anybody's guess. But at any rate, CCA declined to let the Scene review the series of memos the company sent to Colorado officials in response to the state's report. Instead, Chickering cited statistics claiming that CCA had a lower violent disturbance rate, a lower mortality rate and a lower escape rate than selected public prisons. And she recited a litany of bad events that happened in non-CCA prisons.

Amid all these incidents, CCA's COO Jim Seaton resigned suddenly, although company officials don't link his Aug. 10 departure to its mounting management troubles. "Yes, there have been a few operational incidents—no more than average for a correctional system of our size of over 63,000 inmates—but we are not connecting Jim's resignation to any of those issues," Chickering told The City Paper in August.

Under CEO John Ferguson, the company, which became embroiled in scandal and hemorrhaged cash in the late 1990s, has mounted an impressive turnaround. Profits were tidy, and the stock price was rebounding—until July of this year, when it showed a marked drop coincident with bad news from around the country. These days, despite lower profits in the third quarter of 2004 relative to the same period in 2003, its stock price is approaching July highs.

CCA is outwardly optimistic about its future, perhaps with good reason. For one thing, the Bush administration says federal prisons are overcrowded, and it favors privatization. And CCA, which according to an Associated Press report depends on the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 16 percent of its revenues, is a friend of privatization advocates in Congress: it gave $177,500 in the 2004 election cycle, almost exclusively to Republicans. (Tough-on-crime Republicans pass laws that increase incarceration rates, creating demand for CCA's services.) Then there was the Nov. 30 report in the Lexington Herald-Leader that CCA gave $100,000 to a charity run by ethics-impaired U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is currently under investigation by a Texas grand jury. But CCA's Chickering says, "We get absolutely no favors in return, and we expect no favors in return.... We think it's a show of support for the state of Texas." She says CCA routinely gives to charity, citing a Nashville golf tournament that netted $85,000 for local nonprofits.

The other good news for the nation's largest for-profit prison company is that the number of males between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, which comprise a large portion of America's prison population, is on the rise, creating more demand for CCA facilities. "Successfully exploiting these opportunities should result in strong earnings and cash flow growth," an AP report quoted company officials telling investors.

In Nashville, CCA's home territory, the corporation is drawing mixed reviews from its most local customer. Metro Sheriff Daron Hall, a former CCA employee who gives a glowing testimonial on the company's Web site, says it has cooperated fully with his department's efforts to understand the conditions in which Estelle Richardson's murder took place. While both the sheriff's office and CCA say no formal reports were produced in the aftermath of her death. The sheriff's department's in-house inspector, meanwhile, reviewed the segregation unit where Richardson died, finding that many lights didn't work, log sheets were out of date and some equipment was missing or malfunctioning. Warden Brian Gardner later reported that the problems were fixed. Furthermore, Hall says CCA brought in company officials from outside Nashville to review its practices at the Metro prison.

But the Metro sheriff concedes that staffing problems plague CCA prisons, and Metro's is no exception. While the facility reportedly had enough guards on duty, two of the four currently on leave in connection with the Richardson murder had worked double shifts. Hall says overworking employees is a problem for private and public prisons alike. "It is a concern," he says, "but I don't think that's unique to just CCA. It's a police issue and a fire issue and an issue of ours. Sometimes paying overtime is cheaper than hiring and training new staff."

CCA's Chickering says, "We don't have large amounts of overtime in general. We do extensive amounts of research on salary and benefits for our staff."

But Hall says CCA pays significantly less to corrections officers than Metro does—although it pays more than the state does. "When we get a new class for training, I walk in and welcome them and ask how many have been with CCA and how many have been with the state," he says. "There's always both." He says he often calls to let each agency know how many qualified employees it's losing to Metro. "Ultimately, that's coming off of their bottom line: they're training these people and losing them. So that's costing them, too."

One theme of reports in both Colorado and Kentucky is that private prison oversight needs to be improved. Hall notes that CCA has been receptive to concerns about wage and staffing issues in the past, and that it might be worth adding wage standards and maximum turnover rates to private prison contracts, or creating other enforcement mechanisms, in the future.

The morning Estelle Richardson was killed, the facility had enough staff on hand to meet its contractual obligations. But, Hall notes, "The question is, had they been hiring, training and paying people effectively, would [those officers] have had to work double shifts?"

That could be the $60 million question.

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