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State set to extend CoreCivic contract despite prison deaths

Tennessee Lookout, May 31, 2023.

Tennessee has fined private operator $17.74M since 2020

Tennessee plans to extend a private prison company’s contract with an $8 million raise annually to run a state penitentiary in spite of lawsuits alleging it caused inmate deaths.

The pay increase also could come in spite of $17.74 million in state fines levied against CoreCivic since September 2020 for operation shortcomings.

The State Building Commission is scheduled to consider a request from the Department of Correction Wednesday adding two years to CoreCivic’s three-year contract at South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton and increasing the total payout to $212.9 million from $118.18 million.

That marks a $94.8 million increase to cover operating costs for two more years and a shift to monthly payments from payments per inmate each day, equalling $47.4 million annually compared to $39.4 million annually under the initial contract. The extended contract will run out June 30, 2025 if approved.

The move comes despite a spate of inmate deaths at CoreCivic-run prisons that led to lawsuits against the state. Commissioner Frank Strada did not address questions about inmate safety when asked about the contract extension Tuesday, only discussing the prison’s importance to the region and state.

“The South Central Correctional Facility and its dedicated employees play an integral role in our mission to enhance public safety in Tennessee. This agreement allows us to continue a 30-year partnership with the Wayne County community – ensuring balanced population levels across our facilities and the continuance of important rehabilitation programs that benefit all of Tennessee,” Strada said in a previously-issued statement.

The parents of three inmates who died in CoreCivic-run prisons over four months in 2021 accused the private company of putting profits ahead of safety and failing to oversee guards.

Joshua Williams, 37, died at South Central Correctional in November that year from a fentanyl overdose. The autopsy showed he suffered from “systemic infections throughout his body, including pneumonia” when he died.

A filing in the litigation showed a Department of Correction investigation found two guards falsely claimed they checked on Williams several times in the hours before he died.

CoreCivic also runs Hardeman County Correctional Facility in Whiteville, Whiteville Correctional Facility, where the other two deaths took place, and Trousdale Turner Correctional in Tennessee.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway calls the state’s relationship with the for-profit prison company an “unholy alliance” that must be reviewed because it’s a “critical part” of Tennessee’s justice system.

“Justice simply can’t be for sale,” Hardaway said, noting lawmakers and the public don’t think about prisons in those terms.

Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, noted CoreCivic is making “heavy contributions to the right people who make the calls” on prison decisions. He contends the “constitutional rights” of prisons should be the focal point of the correction system, instead. 

Since 2009, CoreCivic has spent $3.3 million on lobbying and donations to Tennessee lawmakers, making it one of the 30 highest political spenders in the state, according to a Tennessee Lookout analysis.

CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, has been on lawmakers’ radar for the last seven years. 

The Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective reported CoreCivic experienced twice as many inmate murders over a five-year period as Department of Correction-run facilities in 2019 even though it houses only 30% of the state’s prisoners. The company responded at the time by saying the figures were skewed for political purposes, yet at that time the state had fined CoreCivic more than $2 million for operating problems.

The state has levied fines totalling $1.69 million against South Central, including $850,300 in January, since September; $6.1 million against Whiteville Correctional; $5.17 million against Trousdale Turner; and $4.26 million against Hardeman County Correctional. In these cases, the money is usually deducted from the company’s contract payment.

The Legislature’s Government Operations Committee declined to extend operation of the Department of Correction for more than two years in 2017 because of short staffing and poor operations at CoreCivic prisons, mainly Trousdale Turner Correctional near Hartsville.

“I think we’re derelict in our responsibilities, not just to the prisoners but to the families, citizens of Tennessee,” Hardaway said.

He contends the state needs to put all contract negotiations and extensions with CoreCivic on hold until a “thorough” investigation is complete on inmate deaths.



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