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Tennessee: Private Prison Guards Considered “Public Servants”

Employees of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, are public servants within the meaning of Tennessee’s criminal code.

In July 2008, CCA guards David Gilliam and Joe Edward McCown III, who worked at the Hamilton County Workhouse in Chattanooga, were charged with official misconduct and official oppression under T.C.A. §§ 39-16-402 and 39-16-403. However, the trial court granted the guards’ motions to dismiss the charges, agreeing that CCA employees were not “public servants” under Tennessee law.

The state appealed and the Court of Criminal Appeals noted that the issue was one of first impression. “The State, citing Alex Friedmann v. Corrections Corporation of America, No. M2008-01998-COA-R3-CV (Tenn.Ct.App., Nashville, Sept. 16, 2009), perm. app. denied (Tenn. 2010), contends that the defendants are public servants because they are performing a service traditionally entrusted to the government.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the state’s Private Prison Contracting Act “specifically extends the provisions of Code sections 39-16-402 and -403 to employees of private prison contractors,” and that the statute was “unambiguous.”

The Court also agreed “with the court of appeals [in Friedmann] that by operating a correctional facility, a function traditionally performed by the State, CCA and its employees were engaged in a governmental function.” The ruling in Friedmann resulted after PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann sued CCA under Tennessee’s public records statute. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.24].

Therefore, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that private prison guards qualified as public servants under Tennessee’s criminal code, and reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the charges against Gilliam and McCown. See: State v. Gilliam, Case No. E2009-01079-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 2010), 2010 WL 2670822.

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Related legal case

State v. Gilliam