NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A majority of Tennessee's prisoners are held in state-run facilities, yet the state's privately run prisons have more inmate homicides, according to a new report by prisoner advocacy groups.
There have been 10 homicides in the privately run state prisons from March 2014 through this June, versus five in state-run lockups, according to the report released Wednesday by the Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective.
Tennessee-based private prison operator CoreCivic's state facilities had a homicide rate more than four times higher than public state facilities, the report says.
The company, in response, called the report misleading.
CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, runs four Tennessee state prisons, while the state operates 10. The state spent about $160 million on the four private facilities in 2017-18, according to budget documents. The company says it moved its headquarters from Nashville to nearby Brentwood this week.
On average, public prisons held 70% of Tennessee's prisoners during the period studied.
At a news conference Wednesday featuring family members of prisoners, the advocacy groups pointed to the report to renew their call for the state to nix its use of private prisons.
"When CoreCivic fails to ensure the safety and security of their prisons and (prisoners are) murdered as a result, they should be held accountable for those lapses in security to the same extent that people are held accountable for their crimes by being sentenced to prison," said Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center.
CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist described the report as a "politically biased interpretation of cherry-picked statistics." She claimed CoreCivic's facilities hold a higher concentration of dangerous inmates, among other factors.
"The bottom line is that even one death in our facilities is too many, and we're always working to improve," Gilchrist said in an emailed statement.
Tennessee's maximum security prisons are exclusively state-run. However, Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said that medium security inmates who reside in general population often have higher rates of violence than maximum security offenders. She said that's due in part to the extra precautions around maximum security inmates.
She also said gangs are on the rise in Tennessee prisons.
Taylor said the state has taken steps to reduce violence in prisons, including tier management, a tip line and increased training.
"However, similar to the free world, no amount of training can prevent the random acts of violence that spontaneously erupt without any notice or preventable indicators," Taylor said via email.
But at Wednesday's news conference, family members of two inmates who died at CoreCivic's private prisons said their relatives faced dangerous conditions.
Kayla Cherry stood in front of a blanket bearing pictures of her nephew, Dameion Nolan, who died in May while he was an inmate at CoreCivic-run Whiteville Correctional Facility.
Cherry said she had to hear it first from an inmate that Nolan had died, despite numerous attempts to contact prison officials. She said Nolan, who had been at Whiteville for 13 years of a 25-year sentence, was tortured and stabbed to death.
CoreCivic and Department of Correction officials said Nolan's death remains under investigation, and declined to comment further on it.
"To this day, I still don't know how this was allowed, what exactly happened," Cherry said. "I just get hearsay from inmates and other correctional officers that work at CoreCivic."