A consulting firm will have to determine whether Corrections Corporation of America can run Hamilton County's jail more cheaply than local government.
But foes of private prisons and human rights groups have more concerns about whether the private company can do so safely.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced last week the county is looking into having CCA take over all of the county's jailing business. The company has run the county's Silverdale facility, which houses pretrial, nonviolent inmates and women, since 1984. Coppinger plans to ask county commissioners to hire PFM, a consulting firm, to study the costs and benefits of selling Silverdale to CCA and contracting with it to build and operate a new jail.
The county's aged downtown jail is getting more expensive to run and soon will need to be replaced anyway, he said. And the current Silverdale contract with CCA will end in April 2016.
"What we know is: We are going to have to build a new jail, which will be extremely expensive. And we've got a contract [with CCA] that's coming up in spring, so we are trying to get out in front and do the responsible thing and see if there's a way to save costs to the taxpayers," Coppinger said.
Coppinger hoped to quell what he called "a firestorm" that came after his announcement last week.
"First of all, we've just thrown it out there. [The plan] is literally in the infant stage. We don't even know what a contract with CCA will look like," Coppinger said.
He said he plans to sit down with judges, the district attorney, the public defender, the sheriff and others to get input on the idea and discuss the county's criminal justice needs.
Money and safety
The county has paid CCA $13.1 million a year over the four-year contract, but Coppinger's proposed 2016 budget includes an additional $1 million to CCA for increased populations at Silverdale. Meanwhile, the budget allots $12 million to running the jail.
Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, says CCA can save some costs by hiring jailers with less training and experience at lower wages. But having an undertrained staff can lead to mistreatment of inmates and dangerous conditions, Friedmann said.
The center advocates for prisoners and their families and is critical of the private prison industry. A study by the group shows the per-capita violence rate at three CCA-run private prisons in Tennessee was consistently higher than in 11 state-run prisons in the Volunteer State from 2010 to 2014.
Friedmann said the group totaled incidents from 11 categories — four types of inmate-on-inmate violence, four types of inmate-on-staff violence and three types of institutional disturbances.
According to the report, the per-capita rate of violence was 29 percent higher in CCA prisons than public institutions. In the first five months of 2014 — the available data at the time the report was made — the per capita violence rate was 16 percent higher in the private facilities.
Friedmann, who served six years in a CCA-run prison in the early 1980s on armed robbery charges before becoming managing editor of Prison Legal News, acknowledged that state prisons and prisoners are very different from most county jails.
Prisons hold violent offenders who have already been sentenced, while county jails generally hold people awaiting trial or serving time for lesser crimes.
CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns said that makes a big difference. And he questioned Friedmann's data because of it.
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"Given that the issue at hand is regarding the jail in Hamilton County, these figures become even less relevant, as it's not an apples-to-apples comparison to the situation being reviewed here," he said.
And Burns said the state's inmate population includes a large number of low-security inmates, while CCA's prisons mainly house mid- to high-security prisoners. CCA prisoners are at higher risk for incidents of violence, he said.
Finally, the group's report included raw data on all violent incidents without categorizing them by severity.
"For example, facility disturbances would be considered more serious than inmate-on-inmate assaults, but it is impossible to determine what percentage of total incidents is attributed to any specific category," Burns said.
Friedmann said concerns about training and oversight at private facilities remain, and he pointed to Silverdale as an example.
In July 2014, CCA paid inmate Countess Clemons a $690,000 settlement after she sued the company in federal court for reportedly causing the death of her newborn child. In the lawsuit, Clemons claimed CCA staff, who knew she was pregnant, ignored her when she complained of abdominal pains, a spider bite and an alleged five-hour span of vaginal bleeding.
Clemons claimed CCA's neglect caused her son, Roland Lebron Clemons, to die shortly after birth.
In another lawsuit, Charity Flerl, who was arrested for being behind on child support, claimed CCA guards kept her shackled while she gave birth at Erlanger hospital. The child was born with a microcephalic condition and "significant heart issues," the suit states.
CCA has denied wrongdoing and denied the woman was shackled during the birth. The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court.
Silverdale has more open cases in federal court, many of which include Hamilton County as a defendant:
Brian Thomas Mosiniak alleges that CCA guards left him face-down on the floor of his cell in September 2014 for 10 to 11 hours after he fractured his hip in a fall from his bunk. He also claims the guards "humiliated and tortured" him by refusing to help him move around and go to the bathroom after his injury.
Christopher Corvin is suing after he was reportedly attacked by a cellmate who had a "lock in a sock," an improvised weapon. He claims guards were aware the cellmate had the weapon and heard him threaten to harm others if they did not move him to a new cell. Corvin was hospitalized and the cellmate charged with aggravated assault.
David Stewart claims he developed frostbite on his hands after a CCA guard "punished" his cellblock by turning on the air conditioning in the dead of winter. According to the lawsuit, another inmate had stolen a battery from the guard.
Corrections Corporation of America
2014 revenues: $1.7 billion
Facilities: 5th largest corrections operator in the country, operating in 20 states
Staff: More than 14,000 employees
Source: Corrections Corporation of America
Benjamin Logan Williams, who is Jewish, alleges CCA staff refused to give him kosher food while he was incarcerated, leading to malnourishment.
Gary Dewayne Thompson claims in a federal lawsuit CCA staff ordered him to harm other inmates to help "keep order" in the Silverdale facility.
CCA denies the allegations in court filings, and the complaints are only allegations.
Meanwhile, the Hamilton County Jail has open cases in federal court, too.
Inmate Al Dorsey is suing because he claims county correctional staff lost his legal documents while he was incarcerated.
Nolan Lucas is suing because he says an officer sexually harassed and humiliated him by claiming it looked like someone was "sucking on his neck."
The jail has problems outside of court as well.
In September 2014, inmate Justin Bradley hanged himself to death in the jail.
Burns said the company cannot comment on open court cases, but he added no corrections facility — public or private — is immune to being sued. He pointed to CCA's decades-old contracts with the state and the county as evidence the company runs a tight ship.
"Overall, Hamilton County itself has a longtime partnership with CCA that spans more than 30 years, providing an extensive body of performance for local leaders to draw upon as they review their options," Burns said.
Burns said in an email last week that the company works hard to prevent violence and to provide all that is required to inmates. And private facilities are not the only prisons that wrestle with incidents of violence and inmate needs.
"Whether it's overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing taxpayer costs or inmates struggling to break the cycle of crime, corrections systems across America face serious challenges, and for more than 30 years, CCA has helped meet those challenges," Burns said.
"Our professionals — including chaplains, nurses, teachers and correctional officers — manage safe, caring and cost-effective correctional facilities for government partners of all levels. We operate in close coordination with our government partners who provide strong oversight."
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned Gov. Bill Haslam to end its contract with CCA, and the group collected 26,054 signatures in support.
The contract didn't end, but ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg last week urged Hamilton County not to extend its business with the company.
"As a private corporation, CCA's obligation is to maximize its profits, often at the cost of compromising public safety and accountability. Evidence of cost savings in private jails and prisons is mixed at best," Weinberg said in an email.
Coppinger said the county does have staff at Silverdale and monitors activities there. Further, the sheriff is constitutionally required to oversee the jail and a contract with CCA wouldn't change that.
"Yes, we are concerned about the care of the inmates. That's not something that we take lightly. But also we are concerned about the rising costs to the taxpayers to keep people incarcerated," he said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrog firstname.lastname@example.org, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.