Locked and Loaded 

CCA, the private jailer and one of Nashville’s richest companies, is facing heightened scrutiny after a year of particularly heinous controversies

Located in a bland, almost anonymous Green Hills office park of fake lakes and fountains is the headquarters of the nation’s largest private prison company, which, at the moment, may be the most disparaged corporation in the country.
Located in a bland, almost anonymous Green Hills office park of fake lakes and fountains is the headquarters of the nation’s largest private jailer, which, at the moment, may be the most disparaged company in the country. Since its inception in 1983, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has encountered legions of angry detractors who believe that the business of punishing criminals should not be—well, a business. But if the company has become accustomed to criticism over the years—like a best-selling author whose novels garner predictably bad reviews—it is now mired in a series of scandals, embarrassments and public-relations catastrophes that may tar its reputation for years to come.

In the last 18 months alone, CCA has been the target of several stinging lawsuits supported by detailed affidavits and third-party reports alleging dangerous and inhumane practices that have put inmates’ lives at risk. Whistle blowers, once in positions of trust at CCA, have emerged from the shadows to tell vivid tales of corporate misconduct. Federal authorities have castigated the publicly traded corporation for operating an immigration detention facility in Texas on the cheap. And at that CCA complex—which at one point forced children of immigrant detainees to dress in prison garb—dozens of incarcerated women and children have come forward with gut-wrenching tales of anguish and neglect.

Here in Nashville, CCA’s officers volunteer on the boards of noble nonprofits. But the company’s local detention center, far removed from the world of tony fundraisers and white-tie dinners, has been the setting for a string of grim events. One inmate beat his cellmate to death. A mentally ill man apparently went nine months without being allowed a shower. And another inmate lost his ear in a fight.

So considering the company’s problems in its own backyard, not to mention its near-epic failings in Texas, it may seem odd to begin our story at a CCA facility in West Tennessee, where last May a few inmates brawled inside a prison chapel. The disturbance at the Hardeman County Correctional Center, located in the tiny town of Whiteville, was no different from any other jailhouse scuffle, and it’s not clear that anyone was even hurt. But an inmate who saw the fight—and maybe even threw a punch or two—got a lesson about the workings of CCA’s particular brand of law and order and its longtime penchant of avoiding scrutiny.

On May 16, 2007, James Ingram, an inmate from Memphis who battled a drug problem, was serving a 17-year sentence for aggravated robbery at the medium-security prison. Clean-cut and not much older than 30, Ingram was walking to his pod at the time of the brawl and overheard a group of inmates fighting at the chapel. Ingram fell into a fetal position to demonstrate, in his lawyer’s words, “a spirit of surrender and cooperation.” If that sounds implausible, consider the next part of the inmate’s story.

After prison officials quelled the fight, they took Ingram to a back room and demanded that he give up the names of the prisoners who squared off. Ingram saw who was involved, but he wouldn’t talk. So the warden, a 40-something man named Glen Turner and the brother of one of CCA’s corporate vice presidents, placed him in solitary confinement. Shortly after, Turner shoved him to the ground and Ingram fell on his back. The warden then punched him in the face, opening a 2-inch cut below his eye.

Typical convict hogwash, right? The state didn’t agree. Ingram called a lawyer, who called the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) to look into what happened. Joined by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, TDOC investigated the incident and determined that Turner assaulted Ingram by “throwing him to the floor and striking him at least twice in the head with the closed fist of his right hand.” In August, Turner resigned as warden. A month later, he pled guilty to a charge of official oppression.

It’s not clear when CCA’s headquarters learned what happened at its West Tennessee prison. But state authorities hint that company officials were slow to act. In an email to his colleagues, Jerry Lister, then TDOC’s acting director of internal affairs, notes that it was only when his department learned of the allegations from Ingram’s lawyer that “anyone at the facility [began] to acknowledge the excessive use of force by Warden Turner.”

As a private company, CCA doesn’t have to answer for what happened at its prison. It refused a request from the Scene to review Turner’s original résumé, job application and disciplinary file. Meanwhile, TDOC never issued a press release about the findings of its investigation. As a result, the publicly traded company escaped the rounds of bad publicity that a state-run prison would have endured had one of its wardens pummeled an inmate. Until now, the media has never reported the details of Turner’s attack on Ingram.

But if CCA was able to dodge a PR nightmare last summer, its luck has since faded. Now it can’t seem to serve so much as a cold meal without landing in hot water. The well-heeled company finds itself embroiled in an array of ugly incidents, both in Nashville and throughout the country, that have been featured on the pages of national newspapers and magazines and in the bold type of heavy-hitting lawsuits. Taken separately, the company’s struggles may not seem extraordinary. The business of incarceration is a rough one, even for those who don’t view it as a business. But for CCA, which for most of the decade has been able to avoid criticism from everyone other than a thin cast of anti-privatization foes, there seems to be a growing series of corroborated accounts that sketch a new portrait: that of a reckless, callous enterprise that treats inmates—even those who haven’t been convicted of a crime—as if they were cattle. Maybe, then, it’s appropriate that we move our story to cattle country.

Elsa is a sturdy woman in her mid-20s with soft, round cheeks and straight, black hair that she sometimes pulls behind her head. Before she found herself locked up in a dusty Texas town, she lived in Honduras with her two children, Richard and Angelina. Here is her story:

Elsa was happy in her native country and “didn’t need anything from anyone to be well-off.” Then one day, while walking on a quiet road, a man grabbed her hair and put a gun to her head. He forced her to take off her clothes, and then he hit her. He called her a “perra” or bitch and laughed as he ran his weapon over her body.

Elsa cried and screamed and then, after being raped, begged for her life. “Please don’t kill me. I have two children.” The man struck her again, but let her live so that he could haunt her once more, showing up on a whim at her friend’s place to let her know he could have her again whenever he chose.

The man’s father worked for the local police department, and Elsa knew the only way to flee him was to flee Honduras with Richard and Angelina. When she arrived in the United States, an immigration agent took her and her family to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, 30 miles north of Austin. It would be anything but a safe haven.

In 2005, Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division (ICE), ended the practice of “catch-and-release”—which permitted undocumented immigrants like Elsa to remain free at-large while they awaited their day in court. Under catch-and-release, no-shows were common. So after 9/11, the specter of illegal immigrants from all over the world roaming the country became a security issue. Pilot programs sprung up that tracked immigrants with electronic bracelets, though Chertoff went with a draconian plan instead: Throw many of these men, women and children in Hutto, a former medium-security prison that was surrounded by a 15-foot fence topped with rings of barbed wire when it reopened in 2006 as a place for immigrant families.

After she arrived in Taylor, Elsa and her family shared a tiny living area, where they’d be loudly awoken at 5:45 a.m. Elsa, Richard and Angelina then had 20 minutes to eat breakfast. When they didn’t finish on time, guards would just snatch their food and throw it in the trash. “When this happens, the children cry and cry,” Elsa later explained in an affidavit that chronicled her plight.

The detention center was very cold, so much so that the guards walked around wearing gloves. But they’d yell at Elsa if she asked for a blanket. One time they came into her cell and confiscated two of her sweaters.

“They don’t care that we are cold,” she said. “They don’t care if we eat or if we don’t eat.”

Elsa and her children wore prison uniforms and spent hours in their pod, often with no toys or books for the kids. One day, Elsa and her family were in the doctor’s office, where all the kids were playing with crayons. Angelina drew a picture, but a guard grabbed the girl’s artwork. She cried a lot at Hutto, wondering what her family had done wrong.

“Mommy, where is God that he doesn’t want to help us? Mommy, tell God to come and take us out of here and take us to our house,” Elsa recalled her daughter saying. “Mommy, why do they have us as prisoners if we have never killed anybody?”

In March 2007, the ACLU helped bring suit against Michael Chertoff and the immigration officers who ran Hutto. As a part of that litigation, attorneys collected more than 20 affidavits from detainees like Elsa, nearly all of whom were bidding to receive political asylum from their home countries. The detainees hail from different continents—some are adults, others young children—but they all tell the same story because they lived it together.

Raouitee Pamela Puran fled her home country, where her husband was kidnapped and murdered. Seeking political asylum in the United States, she and her daughter Wesleyann wound up at Hutto. The young girl, just 4 years old, had trouble sleeping. It was always cold, and it didn’t help that the guards kept turning the lights on and off in their living quarters. The food was awful too. When Wesleyann would talk to her aunt on the phone, she’d plead with her to cook her chicken curry and rice. That always stung her mom.

Even worse, Wesleyann would hear the guards threaten the children who acted up. If you don’t behave, they’d tell them, we’re going to separate you from your parents. Wesleyann was terrified.

A sixth-grader at a junior high school in Ohio, Aissha Ibrahim came to Hutto with his mother, brother and sister on Nov. 30, 2006. Aissha, whose family had fled war-torn Somalia, said in an affidavit that when his sister Bahja got in trouble, the guards threatened to take her away from her family. Another guard told Aissha that if he complained, he would never see his mother again.

“I would be scared if I never got my mom back, and I would think of how she took care of me when I was a baby,” he said.

Just about every affidavit from a child or mother portrayed Hutto the same way—as a rough and cold place, where kids lie awake at night hungry and crying in the dark. And if they act up, like children often do, a guard would threaten to remove them from their families. To hear the stories from inside the walls, Hutto seems more like a medieval dungeon than a 21st century facility run by a wealthy company.

“The conditions were shocking,” says Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor who spent many hours inside the facility representing detainees. “There were children in prison garb dressed like their parents; it was like an adult prison system. Seven times a day parents and their children were required to stay in their pods so they could be counted. Laser beams shined through the cells at night.”

Just about everyone else who walked through the gates at Hutto, including federal authorities, saw it as a deeply troubling facility. In March 2007, ICE inspectors visited Hutto and, in their own distinct bureaucratic language, corroborated the anguished accounts of the detainees. The inspectors noted that their “overall review of the facility can be accurately rated as deficient” and determined that the staff wasn’t following basic standards of detention.

“The Review Team’s observation of CCA’s overall attitude is of disinterest and complacency in their work performance,” the agency noted in its report.

A month later, an interoffice memo from ICE said that at Hutto, CCA is “losing staff as quick as they can hire them.” That’s because the company was only paying its detention officers around $10 an hour, nearly $4 less than what they could make at the county jail.

“As long as CCA continues to hire employees at this rate per hour, they will continue to experience the problems they are currently experiencing on the floor,” read the memo. “The current problems CCA is experiencing are a direct result of what ‘they are paying their employees for.’ Unfortunately, it is at ICE’s expense.”

Among other issues, the Scene asked CCA to address the portrayal of Hutto that emerges from both federal officials and the people who lived there. The company declined to comment on any and all matters in this story, instead emailing news clips and a U.S. magistrate’s report of the facility. That report, which came three months after the ACLU filed its federal lawsuit, depicted a more humane place than other earlier accounts and noted, “there have been attempts to ‘soften’ the feel of the building.” The magistrate observed that the staff removed door locks and hung murals on the walls, “although the building still retains a very institutional feel.”

In August, the ACLU announced a settlement with ICE over the treatment of immigrant families at the Hutto facility. The settlement called for several common-sense measures, including installing privacy curtains around toilets in common areas and letting kids play with toys in their rooms. All 26 children and their parents who took part in the suit were released into the custody of family members who are legal residents of the United States.

By all accounts, Hutto is no longer as oppressive as it was when Elsa and her family first arrived from Honduras. But why didn’t CCA get it right from the start? Or to put it more bluntly, why did a rich company—one with $388 million in revenues last quarter—have to be told by the ACLU to cease treating innocent children like criminals?

“The point I’d like to make is that none of these changes were done voluntarily,” says Hines, the attorney. “When you look at CCA and ICE, the question is, how would this facility have been if no one found out about it?”

The apathetic treatment of Hutto’s immigrants was hardly an anomaly. CCA also operates a detention facility in San Diego that drew a separate ACLU lawsuit last year. In the complaint, the group claims that CCA routinely denied basic medical care to immigrant detainees with hepatitis, diabetes and other serious illnesses. One man from Ghana died from heart failure after the center’s staff allegedly asked him to fill out some paper work—even though he was seen kneeling on the floor of his cell and complaining of chest pains.

At jails and prisons across the country, inmates routinely die under dire circumstances; some commit suicide after nurses fail to fill their anti-psychotic prescriptions, others find themselves on the wrong end of a baton stick. And in fairness, CCA doesn’t have a monopoly on jailhouse horror stories. For every dark tale of cruelty at CCA, there is an equal travesty in a county jail or federal penitentiary. The difference, though, is that CCA can duck responsibility for what happens inside its walls, whereas a government-run facility can’t. CCA doesn’t have to turn over the disciplinary file of a disgraced guard or give a press conference when one of its inmates escapes over the fence. It has the luxury to operate in the shadows and turn a booming profit without having to explain how it runs the business.

We don’t know a lot about Patrick Perry, a onetime captain for CCA’s Metro Detention Facility, located on Harding Road in South Nashville. But we do know that on the morning of Jan. 31, 2008, Perry arrived at the Metro Health Department to talk about his employer and offer a glimpse into some of its secret practices. Metro Health officials would later write a memo detailing what the captain told them.

Perry was worried about a troubled inmate named Frank Horton, who was imprisoned on a drug conviction and had stayed in the same segregation cell since May 2007. Perry said that CCA’s policy dictates that an inmate has to leave his cell at least once every three days or else guards need to remove him by force. But at CCA’s Harding facility, the warden reprimanded the staff if they followed this policy. That’s because every time they had to escort an inmate against his will, it raised the facility’s “use of force” numbers. And that placed the Metro Detention Center in a negative light when CCA officials evaluated it against its other jails and prisons across the country.

At first blush, the warden’s directive may not seem out of order. If an inmate doesn’t want to leave his cell, why should the guards care? But Frank Horton was a special case. As Perry told Metro officials, the 23-year-old inmate seemed disoriented and was speaking gibberish. At the very least, he needed medical care. (Metro Health Department officials say they made sure Horton received a psychiatric screening after their visit with Perry, but say they can’t divulge any more details due to privacy concerns.)

Horton’s mother, Cytherea Braswell, had tried to visit her son before Christmas but says that a guard couldn’t find the necessary forms. She later had a lawyer, John Clemmons, drop in to see him in March, after she learned her son wasn’t well.

When Clemmons arrived, a guard told him that Frank was just fine, that he’d received a shower and a shave. But when he went to see his client, what he saw troubled him.

“He had a big, unkempt goatee, and some stubble on his face and lint on his hair,” Clemmons says. “He was completely naked except for a blanket draped around him, and when they walked me back there, they didn’t act like this was unusual.”

Now contemplating a lawsuit against CCA, Clemmons says that his client went nine months without taking a shower, which dovetails with Perry’s account of how Horton went the better part of 2007 without leaving his cell. Even worse, Horton appeared as if he were completely oblivious to the outside world and lost in his own muddled thoughts.

Brawell says that, as a child, her son was diagnosed with hyperactivity and mild to moderate bipolar disorder. As a young adult, he worked at a Waffle House and played basketball with his friends. With the right treatment, she says, he could live a normal life.

“He was an average person,” she says. “He had a job, he went to work every day, he had friends. He knew how to take care of himself.”

But when Clemmons went to visit Braswell’s son, he was talking in the same mysterious language that Perry described in his visit with Metro officials. It was an odd blend of broken Spanish and English, and Horton spoke it as if it were his native tongue, repeating the same incoherent phrases to identical questions.

“When I saw him, he was in a state where he had no awareness of his mental capacity,” Clemmons says.

With the help of the Metro Legal Department and the Davidson County Sheriff’s office, Clemmons was able to transfer Horton to a state facility for inmates with special needs. Now in the process of researching his case, Clemmons isn’t sure what kind of, if any, mental health treatment his client received behind bars. For that, he may subpoena Patrick Perry to discover whether the CCA facility risked Horton’s health to polish its internal data.

“When I was there, the only medical staff I saw was a nurse who merely walked from window to window and looked at the inmates through a slot in the door,” he says. “It just looked like all they were concerned with was that their physical well-being was intact.”

In his meeting with Metro Health officials, Patrick Perry also said that an alarm for inmates to trigger in the event of an emergency wasn’t working. He added that CCA knew the call system was a problem “but did nothing about it.” The former captain may find himself testifying about that observation as well.

Two weeks before Perry came forward, Gerald Townsend, a 36-year-old inmate at the Harding facility who loved scary movies, died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after being diagnosed with internal bleeding. His spleen was ripped open and blood had flooded his lungs. In his final hours, Townsend told a nurse that Ronnie Sullivan, his 22-year-old cellmate, assaulted him. Metro police later charged Sullivan with Townsend’s murder.

Attorney Blair Durham is representing Townsend’s mother, Jackie, who plans to file a suit against CCA this week. Durham says he’s learned that inmates were banging on their cells as Sullivan began to assault his cellmate. But no one rushed to help. Durham also heard that the alarm, which could have saved Townsend’s life, wasn’t working.

A month after Townsend’s death, an inmate fled the same jail through an air vent. At first, the company announced that the man, who had a history of escape attempts, was simply hiding inside the grounds. A day or so later, when the Scene called to see if he had been found, the company refused to comment.

Earlier this year, after CCA endured a series of PR nightmares at the Metro Detention Center during which the company largely ducked interviews with the media, the private jailer reassigned the facility’s warden, Brian Gardner. For the Davidson County Sheriff’s office, which contracts with CCA to run the Harding jail, the company needed to reevaluate its management of the facility.

“We are satisfied that CCA has responded with a policy change as well as the fact that they have changed their management since these incidents have occurred,” says Karla Wiekal, the sheriff’s spokesperson. “At some point, (CCA) recognized there needed to be a leadership change and at this point forward we will see if these changes are effective.”

In June 2007, President George Bush nominated CCA corporate counsel Gus Puryear to a federal seat in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee. Initially viewed as a safe bet to receive a lifetime appointment, Puryear faltered badly in his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, appearing to some as arrogant and unprepared. The 39-year-old nominee, who twice served as debate coach for Vice President Dick Cheney, struggled in particular to explain how his company handled the brutal 2004 death of Nashville inmate Estelle Richardson, at one point wrongly stating that the guards initially charged in connection with her murder were “exonerated.” Now Puryear’s bid has turned into an unofficial referendum on CCA, and it appears unlikely that the Senate will confirm him before the end of Bush’s presidency.

It’s been that kind of year for the private jailer. Puryear’s struggles, playing out awkwardly on a big stage, make up just the latest bout of bad publicity for the Nashville company, which has also been battered in the national press. In February, The New Yorker reported the definitive story about the company’s Hutto facility in Texas. The magazine detailed how immigrant families shared a tiny cell with a bunk bed, thin mattress and an exposed toilet, while ill-trained guards rounded them up seven times a day for a head count. Then in March, Time.com detailed the accusations of a former high-ranking CCA official who claimed that the company repeatedly misled state and local authorities about the rate of violent incidents at the prisons and jails it had under contract.

In May, The New York Times chronicled how an ailing detainee was treated at a CCA facility in New Jersey just before he lapsed into a coma and died. The paper uncovered records that show that the man, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who overstayed a tourist visa, was “shackled and pinned to the floor of the medical unit.” He vomited and moaned and then was dumped in a disciplinary cell for 13 hours, even though he was foaming at the mouth.

Operating 65 facilities in the country with more than 70,000 inmates and detainees in its custody, CCA will never have a perfect record. But what may say more about the company anchoring a Green Hills office park is not the middle-aged detainee who died of a heart failure or the sinister warden who struck an inmate, but the 9-year-old boy who was forced to live like a common criminal.

Kevin Yourdkhani, whose parents fled from torture in their native Iran, wound up at CCA’s Hutto facility on Feb. 9, 2007. There, he shared a small cell with his mother and had to climb a tall ladder to get to his bunk bed. He slept right next to an open toilet that smelled. The boy also complained about the food—he called it “garbage”—saying that all he was ever fed were beans.

“We are lucky if we get 30 minute to eat,” he said an affidavit for the ACLU’s lawsuit against the place. “It is usually 20 minutes, and they are always rushing.”

In his pod, a small living area that he shared with other detainees, the children were always sick. Lots of kids had eye infections. Kevin attended school but rarely learned anything. All he did was watch “Spanish movies” and color and draw pictures.

One day his father, who was being kept at another part of the facility, came to visit Kevin. That infuriated a guard, who told Kevin that he would be placed in foster care if his dad ever dropped by to see him again.

“I cried and cried so much that I lost my energy and went to sleep.”

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