Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Wisconsin Prisoners Rebel at Private Tennessee Prison

On November 30, 1999, Wisconsin state prison officials were touring the Whiteville Correctional Facility (WCF) in Tennessee. The prison is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and houses 1,500 Wisconsin prisoners.

Just minutes after WCF warden Percy Pitzer led an entourage headed by Wisconsin corrections chief Jon Litscher through the prison's dining hall, about 50 Wisconsin prisoners took 15 CCA kitchen workers hostage and seized control of the chow hall.

SORTs, Special Operations Response Teams, from two nearby CCA prisons joined the WCF SORT team in quelling the disturbance. Also involved were members of the Whiteville and Bolivar police departments, and Hardeman County Sheriff's deputies. Although not directly involved in retaking the prison, the Tennessee Highway Patrol had eight cars at the scene, and its Special operations Division was on standby. After a two-hour standoff, the police and SORT teams stormed and retook the prison using tear gas.

"We were hoping we could outwait them and get them to calm down," Whiteville Police Chief Billy Henson told the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. "But then they started beating some of the staff."

Warden Pitzer downplayed the damage to the facility. But police chief Henson said the dining hall was badly damaged.

"They took over the whole kitchen area and tore it up pretty bad," said Henson. "They had poured soap on the floors so when we came in, we were slipping."

Litscher dismissed the notion that the uprising was tied to his visit. "I was in that kitchen 15 minutes before this thing went down," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "If something was going to happen that was planned, what better time to do it than then? I think it was spontaneous. There was a golden opportunity 15 minutes earlier to do something really dramatic, if they were planning a show-and-tell."

Wisconsin prisoners housed at WCF provided PLN with the answer to Litscher's question about timing: "When visitors from the Wisconsin DOC and CCA were visiting the main inmate dining hall," one WCF prisoner told PLN, "the inmates from K-Pod (who are known snitches and brown nosers) were being fed in the inmate dining room, and I believe that [CCA officials] timed their tour of the dining hall to coincide with the feeding of K-Pod inmates."

Another WCF prisoner told PLN the riot was pre-planned and definitely was timed to draw maximum attention from Wisconsin prison officials: "They had a plan to seriously attempt to make favorable changes by rioting, but with only 40 to 50 inmates that were involved [in the uprising], their quest failed," wrote one prisoner. "The inmates who planned the riot did not really intend to cause serious harm to anybody... all they wanted was better medical treatment, better food, better visiting conditions, and better inmate pay for work performed."

Numerous WCF prisoners have written to PLN with complaints about conditions at the for-profit prison: "This prison is seriously understaffed," writes one prisoner. "The people working here are not trained properly. How can you give a person some classroom training and a little on the job training and expect them to guard seasoned criminals? We were told that this was a medium security facility. It certainly did not turn out to be that. We don't go to the dining hall any more. They open one gate at a time in the hallways. We are being punished because they don't have enough guards to handle any situation which may arise."

"They are way understaffed," another WCF prisoner wrote to PLN, "so they don't want too many inmates in one spot at a time [so] they cut our rec time by two hours a day because they only let one unit out [at a time]."

Wisconsin prisoners exiled in the Tennessee for-profit prison also complain of higher commissary prices, lower pay, outrageously high long distance phone rates, and poor medical care.

"If you have some serious health problems," says a WCF prisoner, "you don't want to be down here. They are way under staffed and under payed, so a lot of them quit when they get some experience."

There have also been numerous well documented instances of guard brutality at WCF. Wisconsin prisoners were beaten and systematically tortured over a four-day period in August of 1998 after a WCF guard, was stabbed during an altercation, according to a lawsuit filed by WCF prisoners.

Prisoners say stun gains were used on their genitals and they were doused with pepper spray, had their heads slammed against walls, and at least one prisoner claims to have been sodomized by guards using a shampoo bottle.

Wisconsin prisoners say they were taunted with a sick sort of Southern hospitality. "They started beating me with their fists, hitting me in my ribs and alongside my head," wrote one prisoner. "As they did this, one of them said, 'Do you know where you're at? You're not in Wisconsin boy! You're in fucking Tennessee. We do things different down here.'"

Martin Luther King observed that "riot is the voice of the unheard." The November 30 riot by Wisconsin prisoners exiled to WCF is a case in point.

"We kept bringing these problems up to the administration," said a WCF prisoner, "But they don't listen to us because profits come before anything."

And Wisconsin prison officials don't want to listen either. With thousands of prisoners warehoused in for-profit out-of-state lockups, Wisconsin officials don't want to admit that their policy of exporting prisoners is a failure. Attorney Terry Williams, who represents Wisconsin prisoners in a pending lawsuit, sums it up nicely.

"It seems like they're trying to put the best spin on this so that they can keep on sending prisoners out of state," Williams told the Journal Sentinel. "They've got a terrible problem -- if there's a clamor to return inmates [to Wisconsin], there's no place to put them."

Sources: Memphis Commercial Appeal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bolivar (TN) Bulletin-Times, Reader Mail

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login