NASHVILLE — Former inmates at a privately run Nashville jail say they worked without pay building bean-bag "cornhole" games, plaques shaped like footballs, birdhouses and dog beds so that officials could sell them through their personal business at a flea market.
Inmates can legally be required to work without pay, in some circumstances, but jail employees are not supposed to profit from their labor. But former inmates Larry Stephney and Charles Brew say that is what happened withStand Firm Designs, run by two jail employees and one former employee, according to their business card.
Although the company website says Stand Firm Designs is "composed of retired contractors," Stephney and Brew said they produced some of the company's products while working without pay in the jail's woodshop under fear of retaliation.
Those products were sold at the Nashville Flea Market and through the website, they said. Plaques went for $10 to $20 and bean-bag toss games commonly called cornhole were $50, they said.
A section of the website with pictures of the plaques Stephney and Brew say they produced has recently been taken down.
To prove the items being sold by Stand Firm Designs were made by inmates, Stephney and Brew concealed their names under pieces of wood nailed to the backs of items. They also wrote the number 412148, which refers to a section of Tennessee code that makes it illegal for jail officials to require an inmate to perform labor that results in the official's personal gain. The AP was shown some of the items with the concealed names and numbers.
Stand Firm Designs is operated by Rob Hill, a building trades instructor at the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility; Steven Binkley, a computer instructor who works out of a room adjoining the woodworking shop; and Roy Napper, who formerly worked at the jail run by Corrections Corporation of America.
The former inmates said Hill and Binkley also took orders from guards and higher-ups throughout the jail for the products they produced.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is probing allegations of misuse of inmate labor at the facility, at the request of Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk.
Messages left for Hill and Binkley were not returned. Napper said the allegations are not true.
"All I can tell you is it's really just a bogus thing. There's not really any slave labor going on over there," he said. "Since it's under investigation, I can't really tell you anything else."
While some of the things Stephney and Brew built were for the facility, like cabinets, most were not, they said. At one point they made 25 birdhouses that they were told were for one of the wardens, Stephney and Brew said.
A message for the warden was not returned.
The jail is run by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison operator, through a contract with the Davidson County Sheriff's Office. The sheriff's office referred questions to CCA. Company spokesman Jonathan Burns said in an email that CCA was cooperating with the investigation, and that the company has a zero-tolerance policy regarding criminal conduct by employees. He declined to address the specific allegations.
The Stand Firm Designs website calls the company a "Christian-based organization" and alludes to the company name with a Bible quote on the home page, "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." The company's logo is its initials inside a Christian fish symbol.
Stephney said his job title at the jail was "tutor" in the building trades department. Rather than helping other inmates learn a trade, he said he spent six hours a day, five days a week working without pay for Hill, Binkley and Napper. Although other inmates were supposed to be learning about building, only the tutors were allowed to touch the tools in the woodshop, he said.
Brew was a tutor but also a trustee who had permission to move around the facility fairly freely. That meant sometimes working even longer hours than Stephney.
"I've been in that shop at 11 o'clock at night, 1 o'clock in the morning," Brew said.
Of the work programs in general, CCA's Burns said in an email, "Providing inmates with voluntary, high-quality and impactful re-entry programs that help prepare them for success upon release is one of CCA's top priorities."
Burns said programs like the building trades class at the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility are voluntary, and inmates can discontinue participation upon giving notice in accordance with established procedures.
Stephney and Brew said they did not feel free to refuse the work. Stephney said he was afraid of making a complaint, worrying that contraband could be planted in his cell, jeopardizing his parole.
"You do anything there as an inmate, you get put in the hole," Stephney said. "If they do something wrong, they should get in trouble too."
Brew also worried something bad would happen to him if he complained.
"It was common knowledge," he said. "Who are you going to tell? I couldn't even file a grievance on the issue."
Both Stephney and Brew were serving time for probation violations. Stephney was released in June and Brew was released in July.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh Devine said Friday the investigation is ongoing.