When PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann received a letter from a prisoner at the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville, Tennessee, a jail operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, which recently changed its name to CoreCivic), he knew something was wrong.
The letter described how prisoners were made to work in a building trades vocational program, creating items such as wooden sports team plaques and cornhole boards (a type of bean bag game). CCA employees would then sell the items online and at flea markets and pocket the proceeds – in violation of a state statute, TCA § 41-2-148, that makes it a crime for jailers to personally profit from prisoners’ labor.
TCA § 41-2-148(a) states: “No sheriff, jailer or other person responsible for the care and custody of inmates housed in a county or municipal jail or workhouse may employ, require or otherwise use any inmate housed in the jail or workhouse to perform labor that will or may result directly or indirectly in the sheriff’s, jailer’s or other person’s personal gain, profit or benefit or in gain, profit or benefit to a business partially or wholly owned by the sheriff, jailer or other person.”
In his April 2015 letter to PLN, prisoner Charles Brew described how he and several other prisoners were made to produce the sports plaques, cornhole boards, birdhouses, dog beds and other items by two CCA vocational instructors, Rob Hill and Steve Binkley, and a former CCA employee, Roy Napper, who together operated a business called Stand Firm Designs. According to its website, the business described itself as a “Christian based organization” that gives customers “the best value and quality for your money.” The company’s website included photos of woodworking items taken inside the jail.
Brew said he was often called out of his cell to make woodworking items when he was a tutor in the building trades program. “I’ve been in that shop at 11 o’clock at night, 1 o’clock in the morning,” he stated. Brew also mentioned that he felt threatened if he didn’t produce the plaques and other items, as CCA staff would mention his upcoming parole hearing with the tacit understanding that they could influence the outcome. Nor did he want to file grievances, as they would be heard by other CCA employees. “Who are you going to tell?” he asked.
According to Brew, even the facility’s warden at the time, Blair J. Leibach, received items made by prisoners in the building trades program, such as 25 birdhouses. The products were also reportedly sold to other CCA employees though the prisoners received no money for the sales. While a Metro contract monitor was present at the facility, the monitor apparently never noticed that items made in the building trades program were being sold both within and outside the jail.
In addition to PLN, Brew had contacted other organizations and agencies, including the local District Attorney’s office and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which launched an investigation. Meanwhile PLN conducted its own inquiry. In order to verify Brew’s claims that the items he and other prisoners were making were being sold by CCA employees at a local flea market, Friedmann told him to mark specific items, including plaques with sports team logos, and to conceal his name and “412148” – the TCA statute number – inside the plaques.
Friedmann and another PLN employee, Monte McCoin, then went to the monthly flea market at the Nashville State Fairgrounds in May 2015 with a video camera and took undercover footage when purchasing the marked items from CCA employees. They also took video when they disassembled the plaques using a screwdriver to reveal the names and the TCA statute number hidden inside.
PLN worked with the Associated Press (AP) to break the story on August 16, 2015 in an article that included interviews with Brew and another former prisoner, Larry Stephney, who had also been a tutor in the building trades program. Both Brew and Stephney previously had been been released to a halfway house, where they were able to speak out about the exploitation of prisoner labor by CCA employees.
The AP article, published in The Tennessean and picked up by numerous other media outlets, confirmed that the TBI was investigating misuse of prisoner labor at the CCA-run jail. Napper denied the allegations, saying “All I can tell you is it’s really just a bogus thing. There’s not really any slave labor going on over there.” Citing the pending investigation, he did not comment further.
Although the AP article did not mention PLN’s contribution in breaking the story, a follow-up article on September 16, 2015 noted that the “alleged misuse of inmate labor at the jail was first reported by Prison Legal News.” The second article also reported that Hill, Binkley and Napper had been charged with official misconduct and misuse of prisoner labor. The current and former CCA employees were each released on $1,000 bond; Hill and Binkley were placed on administrative leave by CCA.
PLN provided WSMV Channel 4 with a copy of the undercover video taken at the flea market, which aired on the Nashville TV channel on September 17.
According to the DA’s office, Hill, Binkley and Napper pleaded guilty to a charge of official misconduct on December 4, 2015, and each received a one-year suspended sentence. The website for their business, Stand Firm Designs, is no longer online. Warden Leibach was transferred to another CCA facility in March 2016.
Brew and Stephney retained Nashville attorney Douglas Johnston, Jr. to seek compensation for the labor they performed without pay while incarcerated, for the personal benefit of CCA employees. Their claims, as well as the claims of Donnie Gregory, another former prisoner who was made to produce woodworking items in the jail’s building trades program, were resolved by CCA through a pre-litigation settlement in August 2016. Pursuant to the settlement, the company agreed to pay $4,763.25 to Brew, $2,034.82 to Stephney and $1,063.58 to Gregory, plus $15,000 to their attorney. The settlement details were obtained through a public records request filed with CCA.
Sources: Associated Press, www.wsmv.com, PLN public records request, WZTV
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