PLN Obtains Confidential CCA Litigation Records in Tennessee
There are many arguments against the privatization of prisons, jails and other detention facilities. Over the years, Prison Legal News has published numerous articles detailing the problems with having a for-profit company fulfill the essential governmental function of incarceration – including higher levels of violence, higher average recidivism rates, lack of public accountability and, in some cases, outright corruption and fraud.
Such reporting has revealed common factors in the private prison industry that have contributed to deficiencies at for-profit prisons, such as inadequate staffing, inexperienced and low-paid guards, high staff turnover rates and inadequate medical care.
For private prison companies, their business model of cutting costs in order to generate profit unsurprisingly results in occasional lawsuits – “occasional” because engaging in litigation is a daunting task filled with procedural hurdles and complexities that are beyond the ability of the average prisoner, as most lack even a high school education. And in cases where a prisoner is rendered incapacitated or dies, a legal action seeking to hold a private prison firm accountable only results if there are family members willing to seek justice on the prisoner’s behalf.
However, when confronted with a lawsuit that reaches the point of an impending trial or has extremely damaging facts, for-profit prison companies have a ready solution – confidential settlement agreements.
The standard settlement agreement used by Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm, states that its terms are confidential; such agreements also often impose a gag order on the parties, requiring them to refrain from making any disparaging or derogatory comments about each other, including to the news media. CCA disclaims any fault or liability in its settlement agreements. Due to such provisions, the public is rarely informed about the outcome of litigation involving the company.
PLN strongly believes in the public’s right to know, and in 2007 PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann filed a public records request with CCA under Tennessee’s public records law, seeking, among other documents, all complaints, verdicts and settlements in lawsuits or claims against the company that resulted in the payment of damages or attorney’s fees of $500 or more involving CCA-operated facilities in Tennessee.
Of course CCA balked. Friedmann filed suit on behalf of PLN, and over the next five years the case made two trips to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, with CCA losing each time. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.14; Jan. 2012, p.45; Oct. 2008, p.24].
The company finally agreed to settle the case in 2014 and produce the requested records, including confidential settlement agreements involving five of its privately-operated facilities in Tennessee. The Court of Appeals found that one CCA-run prison, the South Central Correctional Center, was exempt from PLN’s records request under a specific state statute.
PLN ultimately received records related to 32 settlements and two judgments that occurred from April 3, 2002 through April 3, 2007 – the time period specified in the original public records request. As those records were no longer newsworthy by the time they were produced, PLN filed another records request with CCA for similar litigation-related documents from April 3, 2007 through June 2, 2014.
Pursuant to the second request, CCA produced records from 31 cases over that time period related to two facilities housing state prisoners, the Whiteville Correctional Facility (Whiteville) and Hardeman County Correctional Center (Hardeman), and two jails – the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility (MDF) in Nashville and the Silverdale Detention Facility (Silverdale) in Chattanooga. Those cases resulted in settlements totaling $2,105,133.70.
Silverdale Detention Facility
Fifteen of the 31 settlements involved lawsuits or claims arising from incidents that occurred at CCA’s Silverdale facility. The smallest payout was $1,500 for a slip-and-fall negligence claim. The largest concerned the death of prisoner Countess Clemons’ newborn baby after CCA staff failed to provide her with timely medical care, resulting in a $690,000 settlement in August 2014. Clemons was represented by the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent non-profit organization. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.28].
Another notable lawsuit involved prisoner Gary Dewayne Thompson. PLN has previously reported cases where guards allegedly gave privileges to certain prisoners to act as “enforcers” to maintain order or impose discipline.
Thompson alleged that guards at Silverdale compelled him to act as a “gladiator” and “kapo,” by assaulting other prisoners. He filed suit over the constitutional violations that resulted from being forced into that role, and received a $35,000 settlement in 2007. See: Thompson v. Hamilton County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:07-cv-00109.
Thompson’s allegations set the tone for the environment at Silverdale when prisoner Eric D. Smith began experiencing problems in 2010. Smith claimed that a counselor called him a member of the Aryan Nation during a routine search with about 60 other prisoners present. On January 3, 2011, he said a guard allowed about 12 “African” prisoners into his cell to assault him. CCA settled his subsequent lawsuit on May 16, 2013 for $6,000. See: Smith v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-00121.
Among the other cases involving incidents at Silverdale, one resulted in a $30,000 settlement after prisoner Willie McLeod was assaulted and stabbed by a fellow prisoner after a CCA guard allegedly facilitated the attack, and another prisoner who was improperly housed on a top bunk and sustained a broken arm that was not treated until after his release settled his complaint against the company for $7,000.
The second-highest Silverdale settlement went to prisoner Roy Pinson, who fell off a roof at the facility on July 2, 2012, sustaining “serious injuries and permanent damage to his neck, spine, arm, shoulder, brain, and nerves.” That accident never resulted in a lawsuit being filed; just months after Pinson’s attorney sent a demand letter to CCA, the company agreed to pay $120,000.
If nothing else, CCA guards apparently feel a close association with law enforcement officials. Donna L. Johnson was arrested in Chattanooga on November 30, 2011 on a warrant out of Wichita County, Texas. Her fugitive warrant was based on a criminal complaint alleging an offense related to photos she was paid to take of sheriff’s deputies, which she had not yet finished processing.
Upon her arrival at Silverdale, Johnson was verbally abused and repeatedly threatened by CCA employees with sexual assault for “victimizing a law enforcement agency,” her lawsuit alleged.
Shortly after being processed, Johnson “suffered a medical episode that necessitated a medical evaluation,” but it was not until six hours later that she was transported to a hospital. Johnson was handcuffed and placed in a “hogtied” position as she was carried to the transport van and “violently shoved” into it.
Her complaint further claimed that CCA guards struck her “directly and repeatedly in her genitalia, causing her internal injuries.” As a result she “suffered a number of lacerations and abrasions to her body and had a number of her teeth knocked out, requiring oral surgery.” Johnson reached a settlement with CCA on May 16, 2014 for $10,000. See: Johnson v. Wichita County, Texas Sheriff’s Office, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:12-cv-00394.
In sum, CCA paid $989,000 to settle the 15 lawsuits and claims arising at Silverdale over the seven-year period covered by PLN’s second public records request – the most for any of the company’s prisons and jails in Tennessee. Hamilton County officials are currently considering privatizing the county’s main jail facility, and CCA is currently one of the contenders for that contract in spite of its questionable track record.
Hardeman and Whiteville Facilities
Ten lawsuits and claims filed by prisoners or their surviving family members resulted from incidents that occurred at Hardeman and Whiteville; both facilities house state prisoners for the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) under contracts with Hardeman County. The vast majority of the litigation payouts came from two suicides at Whiteville.
In both of those cases, CCA was aware the prisoners had a history of mental illness. Both were placed in isolation cells that exacerbated their mental health problems, culminating in suicides. Montraz Ware’s death in March 2006 led to a $75,000 settlement, while Ricky Ware’s estate received $120,000 for his March 2007 death; both cases were resolved in 2009. See: Ware v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:07-cv-02154-JDB-egb and Ware v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01096-JDB-egb.
The death of Hardeman prisoner Larry Adams illustrated the incompetence of CCA’s medical staff. Adams was being treated for tuberculosis and received an injection of Isoniazid. However, he had a pre-existing liver condition which should have precluded him from receiving that medication, as it was contraindicated. The improper administration of Isoniazid caused Adams to contract hepatitis B, resulting in his death on May 31, 2007. His estate sued and CCA agreed to a $70,000 settlement in July 2014. See: Williams v. Hardeman County Government, Circuit Court of Hardeman County (TN), Case No. 08-02-0328.
Prisoner James Gooch was subjected to similar, but not as egregious, indifference by CCA staff at Hardeman after he complained about “severe obstructive sleep apnea” in July 2010. He claimed that his condition resulted “in sleep fragmentation and arterial oxyhemoglobin desaturation.”
While the prison’s medical staff sent Gooch out for a sleep study and diagnosis, CCA refused to provide the recommended treatment until he began filing grievances. Even then, the treatment was “delayed and the [sleep apnea] machine provided [to] him was not performing properly.” CCA agreed to settle Gooch’s civil rights action in August 2013 for $1,800. See: Gooch v. Buford, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01098-JDT-egb.
Similar problems with medical care occurred at Whiteville. When prisoner David E. Plunk filed suit in federal court in 2007, he alleged he had been diagnosed with proliferative T-cell lymphoma, which had gone into remission. While at a TDOC facility he received a medical recommendation for a mastectomy of his left breast and a biopsy, with those procedures to be performed “as soon as possible to make the diagnosis in a timely fashion.”
After he was transferred to Whiteville, however, Plunk did not receive either procedure; rather, two months after his arrival at the CCA facility, a doctor requested a CT scan and, based on the results, claimed “there was no need for surgery and no evidence of cancer.” Plunk’s grievances were denied by CCA staff. Fourteen months after his surgery and biopsy were originally scheduled, Plunk finally received a biopsy which indicated he had angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma. He was then transferred to a TDOC medical facility to receive chemotherapy.
Plunk filed suit, arguing that CCA’s delay in providing him with the recommended surgery and biopsy “lessened the probability that treatment would be as successful as it had been previously, and decreased the Plaintiff’s life expectancy and quality of life.” CCA settled the case for $60,000 in February 2008. See: Plunk v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01057-JDT-sta.
Hardeman prisoner Ricky E. Gardner was strangled to death by his cellmate on April 19, 2010. According to a lawsuit filed by Gardner’s family, the cellmate was known by CCA staff to be “mentally unstable and often violent,” and had “a propensity for violence and posed a danger to inmate safety.” CCA settled the wrongful death suit for $50,000 in September 2012. See: Gardner v. Easterling, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01062-JDB-egb.
The settlements related to incidents at the Whiteville and Hardeman facilities cost CCA a total of $411,049.95 from 2007 through 2014.
Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility
Over the seven-year period covered by PLN’s second public records request, the CCA-operated MDF had six payouts totaling $705,083.71 – making it the facility with the highest average settlement amount. MDF primarily houses TDOC prisoners serving sentences of six years or less through a contract between CCA and Davidson County.
On January 14, 2008, prisoner Gerald Townsend was fatally beaten in a segregation cell at MDF by his cellmate, Ronnie Sullivan, a larger prisoner with mental health problems who had threatened his previous cellmates. The emergency call button in Townsend’s cell reportedly was not working, so he could not call for help.
Former CCA Captain Patrick Perry, on duty the night that Townsend was killed, testified during a sworn deposition that the emergency call buttons in most of the segregation cells were non-functional.
Perry also stated that Sullivan had previously been placed on suicide watch, claimed to be schizophrenic, homicidal and suicidal, and “had been a problem the whole time he was there ... he was making threats against his cellmate” prior to being placed in a cell with Townsend. Sullivan was described as 6’ tall and muscular, while Townsend was a “a very sick and frail individual.”
CCA had already been put on notice that the non-working call buttons could endanger prisoners’ safety. Perry testified that another prisoner, Brian Falk, had been seriously assaulted and injured by his cellmate in 2007. According to Perry, “It was an assault serious enough for Brian Falk to leave in an ambulance and come back with his mouth wired shut because his jaw had been broke. And he screamed and hollered about pushing on the [emergency call] button and not getting help.”
Townsend’s family filed suit over his preventable homicide, and CCA settled the case for $30,000 in December 2010. See: Townsend v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:08-cv-00697.
The failure of CCA employees to treat MDF prisoner Terry W. Battle, 55, for pneumonia resulted in his death on June 3, 2008. A week before he died, Battle had a recorded temperature of 102.2 and a pulse of 128, which should have resulted in a referral for a medical evaluation. Instead, a nurse gave him Motrin. The next time Battle was examined he had an abnormally low blood pressure of 98/69 but was not seen by a doctor.
In fact, despite being too sick to eat or walk, and despite having been seen on an emergent basis by a nurse, Battle was not evaluated by a physician until the day before he died. By then it was too late.
At the time of his death, MDF had no assigned Health Services Administrator; the previous administrator, Barbara Cawthorne, had resigned in protest after CCA allegedly failed to act on her report of a nurse caught performing oral sex on a guard during work hours. Battle’s estate received a $400,000 settlement from CCA through pre-litigation mediation.
At the time of his death, Battle was pursuing a federal lawsuit himself, alleging that he was assaulted by a maximum-security prisoner at MDF who had gotten out of his cell and hit him with a food tray while a guard failed to intervene. Captain Perry later stated in his sworn deposition that prisoners at MDF were able to manipulate some of the cell doors so they would not lock properly.
Further, in a case involving a pregnant prisoner who lost her baby while incarcerated at MDF, former CCA nurse Teresa Hazelwood provided an affidavit stating “the facility’s medical unit was understaffed and over-worked for the number of prisoners, preventing proper medical care for all of the prisoners.”
“The facility often relied on non-medical personnel to make medical decisions for prisoners,” Hazelwood added. “I have worked in nursing and corrections for many years. CCA’s continuing mistreatment of prisoners is the worst I have ever witnessed.”
That affidavit was provided in a lawsuit filed by MDF prisoner Meredith Manning. As previously reported in PLN, CCA staff ignored her pleas for help when she experienced vaginal bleeding over a three-day period in 2004 while pregnant and held in a solitary confinement cell. Her child lived only three hours after being born. Manning received a $250,000 settlement from CCA after filing suit in state court. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.28].
Apparently, inadequate medical care at MDF has been a long-standing problem. In a settlement produced by CCA pursuant to PLN’s first public records request, the company paid $650,000 in a medical-related wrongful death case.
When prisoner Carlton D. Sloss entered MDF in May 2005 he was in average health and did not have respiratory problems. On the morning of December 1, 2005, Sloss reported to the clinic with a complaint of “difficulty breathing and throat closing.” The on-duty nurse placed him in an observation cell.
A few hours later Sloss received an asthma treatment, but soon afterwards became agitated and said he could not breathe. He was given Dexamethasone and Benadryl, and staff began suctioning his airway, which produced red sputum. Just two minutes later, Sloss was bagged with 100% oxygen and became unresponsive.
Upon their arrival, EMS personnel tried to intubate Sloss and started antibiotics via IV. CCA’s medical staff had made no such efforts despite noting that Sloss’ tongue was swollen and “his digits [were] cyanotic” – i.e., they were turning blue. Sloss died after being taken off life support on December 2, 2005. According to a demand letter served on CCA by Sloss’ estate, his life could have been saved by “the simple administering of antibiotics and checking his airway to make certain it was clear.”
Several months after the demand letter was sent, in November 2006, CCA agreed to pay $650,000 to resolve the estate’s pre-litigation claim; that was almost as much as all litigation payouts involving MDF from April 2007 to 2014 combined.
Cost of Doing Business
Nurse Hazelwood’s affidavit in the Manning case aptly described some of the common outcomes of prison privatization: inadequate staffing levels and cost cutting, which can result in dangerous conditions and serious operational problems – up to and including prisoner deaths. Proponents of privatization often cite projected cost savings, but such savings take a heavy, even deadly, toll on prisoners held in for-profit prisons and jails.
Over the seven-year period covered by PLN’s most recent public records request, CCA received hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to operate Silverdale, Hardeman, Whiteville and MDF. For example, the company receives around $38 million per year to run its Hardeman facility and approximately $30 million annually to operate Whiteville.
The combined $2.1 million in settlements the company paid from 2007 through 2014 means it cost CCA approximately $300,000 per year in litigation payments as a result of its business model of understaffing and cost-cutting in Tennessee. While the social and emotional costs of prisoners’ deaths due to inadequate medical care, homicides and suicides are much higher for their families, those costs do not appear on CCA’s profit and loss statements.
The settlements resulting from lawsuits and claims are simply a cost of doing business for CCA, and are negligible compared to the revenue it receives. When profit comes before human rights, compassion and dignity, all of society suffers – though as a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, CCA’s bottom line is all that really matters to corporate executives and shareholders. That distinction is the most significant difference between correctional facilities operated by government agencies and those run by for-profit corporations, and a strong argument against privatizing prisons, jails and other detention facilities.
All of the litigation documents produced by CCA pursuant to PLN’s public records requests are available on our website, www.prisonlegalnews.org.
Additional source: TIPA report (March 15, 2010)
Related legal cases
Williams v. Hardeman County Government
|Cite||Circuit Court of Hardeman County (TN), Case No. 08-02-0328.|
|Level||Court of Claims|
Johnson v. Wichita County
|Cite||Texas Sheriff’s Office, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:12-cv-00394|
Smith v. CCA
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-00121.|
Gooch v. Buford
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01098-JDT-egb|
Gardner v. Easterling
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:11-cv-01062-JDB-egb.|
Townsend v. CCA
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:08-cv-00697.|
Ware v. CCA
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01096-JDB-egb|
Ware v. CCA,
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:07-cv-02154-JDB-egb|
Plunk v. CCA
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01057-JDT-sta|
Thompson v. Hamilton County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:07-cv-00109|