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CoreCivic Prisons in Tennessee Have Twice as Many Murders, Four Times the Homicide Rate as State-Run Facilities

On June 10, 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center and No Exceptions Prison Collective reported that from 2014 through June 2019, there were twice as many murders in the four Tennessee prisons operated by CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) than in the 10 prisons run by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). Also, the homicide rate in CoreCivic facilities was over four times higher than the rate for TDOC prisons. This was despite the fact that during that time period, TDOC facilities held, on average, 70% of the state’s prison population – including prisoners with higher security levels than in CoreCivic prisons.

Those findings were reported during a joint press conference held by HRDC and No Exceptions outside CoreCivic’s headquarters in Nashville. Family members of prisoners who had died at the company’s facilities spoke at the event, which was attended by the local news media.

CoreCivic operates four prisons that house Tennessee state prisoners: the Whiteville Correctional Facility (WCF), South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF), Hardeman County Correctional Facility (HCCF) and Trousdale-Turner Correctional Center (TTCC). TTCC, which opened in 2016, has been criticized in a state audit, during legislative hearings and in news reports. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.46]. The TDOC has fined CoreCivic over $2 million for contract violations at TTCC.

 From March 2014 through June 2019, ten prisoners were murdered at the four CoreCivic facilities, including Jeffrey T. Sills (2014, at SCCF); Daniel Colby (2016, at HCCF); Michael Belt (2016, at WCF); William Hancock (2016, at HCCF); John Herrin (2017, at HCCF); Earl Wayne Johnson (2017, at HCCF); Fidencio Perez (2018, at SCCF); Dameion Nolan (2019, at WCF); Ernest Edward Hill (2019, at TTCC); and Tyrone Elliott Montgomery (2019, at SCCF).

 Five state prisoners were killed in TDOC-run facilities during the same period, based on data from the Department’s annual statistical abstract reports and more recent information provided by the TDOC’s communications office.

 From 2014 through June 2018, Core­Civic facilities housed from 24.65% to 34.59% of the state’s prison population, with an average of 30.09% (population data for FY 2019 has not yet been released by the TDOC and was not used). Thus, while TDOC facilities housed 70% of the state’s prison population on average, twice as many homicides occurred in CoreCivic facilities. The average homicide rate in TDOC prisons was .67 per 10,000 prisoners while the average rate in CoreCivic facilities was 3.13 per 10,000 prisoners – or 4.64 times higher.

 Additionally, three of the four CoreCivic prisons are classified as medium-security facilities, while the TDOC operates higher-security prisons that house close- and maximum-security prisoners. Yet more prisoners have been killed in CoreCivic facilities.

 Jeffrey Sills, 43, was reportedly beaten and stabbed to death by his cellmate, Travis Bess, at SCCF in March 2014. Witnesses indicated that Bess had publicly said he would kill Sills if they were housed together, yet that statement was allegedly ignored by CoreCivic guards.

 Earl Wayne Johnson, 68, was beaten by another prisoner at HCCF; according to a request for medical care the day after he was attacked, Johnson said he was assaulted because he refused to give his coffee to the other prisoner. The medical examiner found his death was caused by a “subdural hematoma due to blunt force injuries of the head.” Johnson’s widow, represented by attorney Ty Clevenger, has filed a wrongful death suit against CoreCivic, claiming the company understaffs its facilities in order to reduce costs and “routinely” fails to provide adequate medical care.

Fidencio Perez, 51, was assaulted and killed by his cellmate, Billy McIllwain, at SCCF on April 27, 2018. McIllwain was later indicted and charged with second-degree murder. Another SCCF prisoner, Walter E. Kendrick, was charged with first-degree murder for killing Tyrone Elliott Montgomery, 52, at the CoreCivic-run prison in January 2019. 

 On May 3, 2019, Dameion Nolan was attacked in his cell by a group of prisoners at WCF. According to other prisoners who contacted his family, Nolan, who was not affiliated with a gang, was stabbed to death by multiple gang members after a CoreCivic guard let them into his locked cell. His family has started a change.org petition to close the Whiteville facility. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating the June 15, 2019 death of Ernest Edward Hill, 42, at TTCC; a CoreCivic spokesperson said the facility was placed on “partial lockdown status following an inmate-on-inmate altercation that resulted in one inmate losing his life.”

“It is unconscionable that CoreCivic houses far fewer prisoners than in TDOC facilities, with lower security levels, yet has had twice as many homicides over the past five years,” said HRDC associate director and PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, who served six years at one of the company’s facilities prior to his release in 1999 and is now an expert on the private prison industry. “CoreCivic – and the Tennessee Department of Correction, which monitors the state’s private prison contracts – need to explain the disproportionate number and rate of murders in CoreCivic-operated prisons, and whether those deaths are attributable to the company’s profit-based business model.”

“CoreCivic’s profit model is built around understaffing and constant lockdowns of poorly run, exceedingly dangerous prisons. For years, prisoners and their loved ones have begged for government officials to intervene and put an end to CoreCivic’s cultivated environment of abuse, neglect and death. The only acceptable solution to the human rights disaster that CoreCivic has been allowed to create is to shut this corporation down. No one should profit from torture,” added Jeannie Alexander, an attorney, former TDOC chaplain and director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective.

The Human Rights Defense Center has been tracking deaths at all CoreCivic facilities. In addition to the 10 murders at the company’s prisons in Tennessee from 2014 through June 2019, there also were at least nine suicides. Nationwide, over 600 prisoners have died at CoreCivic-operated facilities, from all causes, since 1992.

No Exceptions, founded in 2014, is a non-profit grassroots initiative in Nashville, Tennessee dedicated to transforming the social segregation of prison by advocating that no exceptions be made to the abolition of slavery – such as the exception for people convicted of crimes as set forth in the Thirteenth Amendment.

In response to the press conference held by HRDC and No Exceptions regarding the high number and rate of murders at CoreCivic prisons in Tennessee, the company posted a vitriolic “media statement” on its website that specifically criticized Friedmann, stating he had “served time for attempted murder, assault and armed robbery, and [ ] now makes his living as a paid, professional critic of partnership corrections.”

“At least they acknowledged that I’m a professional,” Friedmann quipped.

CoreCivic’s statement, which called the findings by HRDC and No Exceptions “politically biased,” also contained numerous blatant falsehoods that were easily disproven using publicly available information provided by the TDOC.

The company argued that “a true apples-to-apples comparison would compare facilities by charge data. For example, a facility that holds a higher concentration of inmates convicted of murder or other violent crimes – as is the case with CoreCivic’s Tennessee facilities – would be expected to have a higher homicide rate than those housing non-violent offenders.”

In fact, TDOC prisons house more prisoners convicted of homicide and violent crimes than CoreCivic facilities. The company’s statement that it houses “a higher concentration of inmates convicted of murder or other violent crimes” was completely false.

In the TDOC’s statistical abstract report for FY 2018, the department breaks down the prison population by primary offense and facility location. That report indicates the four CoreCivic prisons held approximately 1,132 prisoners convicted of murder, while TDOC facilities held 2,887 – more than twice as many. Further, the data for prisoners convicted of all “person” offenses (defined by the TDOC as homicide, kidnapping, sex offenses and assault) indicated that CoreCivic prisons housed approximately 3,588 prisoners convicted of such offenses, while TDOC facilities held 6,448 – almost twice (1.8 times) as many. 

According to CoreCivic’s “apples to apples” comparison, based on prisoners convicted of homicide and other violent crimes, its facilities should have half the murders as TDOC prisons, but in fact the number of homicides is double at the company’s facilities.

In terms of the “concentration” of prisoners with homicide convictions, using the data in the TDOC’s FY 2018 report, an average 15.25% of the population at the four CoreCivic prisons included prisoners with homicide convictions. Yet the average percentage of prisoners with homicide convictions in state-run prisons was 20.6%. Again, CoreCivic’s statement was completely false.

“That excuse that it’s the nature of the inmates and the number of inmates and how they’re handling those inmates, that’s just an admission that you’re not doing your job,” said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, in reference to CoreCivic’s excuses for the higher number of homicides at its Tennessee facilities.

The company next argued that “nearly the entirety of the population that CoreCivic holds is medium-security custody and above (i.e., populations with a higher propensity toward violent incidents).”

Yet according to the TDOC’s statistical abstract report for FY 2018, a total of 17,356 state prisoners were classified as medium security. CoreCivic housed an average daily population of 7,655 prisoners during FY 2018, based on the report; therefore, the TDOC housed more (9,701) medium-security prisoners than CoreCivic.

CoreCivic falsely stated that while its prisons mainly hold medium-security prisoners, “a substantial portion of TDOC’s sites hold minimum-security, non-violent offenders.” In fact, based on the TDOC’s FY 2018 report, a total of 2,999 prisoners at all facilities (both TDOC and CoreCivic) were classified as minimum security. Even if every one of those prisoners was held at a TDOC facility, minimum-security prisoners would comprise just 20% of the population in state-run prisons – certainly not a “substantial portion” as claimed by CoreCivic.

When asked to comment on CoreCivic’s incorrect statement that its prisons house more dangerous prisoners than state-run facilities, TDOC Communications Director Neysa Taylor did not address the fact that more medium-security prisoners are held in state prisons, and said the TDOC “stands by” its previously issued statement and has “nothing more to add on that issue.”

 In its media statement, CoreCivic also complained that “it’s statistically questionable to rely on a rate-per-10,000 calculation for a population that’s smaller than 10,000 people. CoreCivic doesn’t even hold 10,000 inmates for TDOC.” 

Apparently unfamiliar with basic math, the company failed to realize that rates per population are used for comparison purposes, and different rates – such as deaths per 1,000 prisoners – can be obtained by simply moving the decimal point. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, uses rates per 100,000 prisoners in its “Mortality in State Prisons” report, even though almost all (47 of 50) states have far less than 100,000 prisoners.

 In this case, as noted above, the homicide rate at CoreCivic’s four prisons in Tennessee from March 2014 through June 2019 was 3.13 per 10,000 prisoners, compared with .67 per 10,000 prisoners in TDOC facilities – or 4.64 times higher. The homicide rate in CoreCivic prisons per 1,000 prisoners was .313, compared with a rate of .067 in TDOC prisons – again, 4.64 times higher. Changing the basis used to calculate population rates does not change the difference between the rates. This is simple math that CoreCivic – which receives over $160 million from the State of Tennessee – evidently does not grasp.

 The company further argued that the report of homicides at its prisons failed to “take into account male vs. female populations. CoreCivic holds only male populations for TDOC, which statistically are more disposed toward violent incidents than female populations.” 

 However, the TDOC only houses around 2,000 female prisoners, or about 10% of the state’s total prison population. Even removing those 2,000 female prisoners from the prison homicide data, there were still 10 murders at CoreCivic prisons, and the homicide rate at the company’s prisons was still more than four times higher than at TDOC facilities that only house male prisoners (3.13 per 10,000 prisoners at CoreCivic prisons versus .778 at TDOC-run prisons – or 4.02 times higher).

 “It is not until the very last paragraph in CoreCivic’s media statement that the company says, ‘The bottom line is that even one death in our facilities is too many, and we’re always working to improve.’ But if one death is too many, then what about the 10 murders and nine suicides at CoreCivic prisons in Tennessee alone over the past five years, among other deaths?” Friedmann asked.

“The real ‘bottom line’ is this: CoreCivic does a very poor job of managing its facilities and ensuring prisoners’ safety. The company cares only about its own bottom line – how much money it makes,” he added. “When presented with a factual report that twice as many prisoners have been murdered in its prisons in Tennessee, which have a homicide rate four times higher than state-run prisons, CoreCivic attacked the messenger and issued easily-disprovable lies. If the company makes such falsehoods so freely, just imagine what it tells its government partners, investigators and investors.

“CoreCivic does not dispute that the murders in its prisons occurred, and its response is a callous insult to the family members of the prisoners who were killed in its facilities due to the company’s failure to protect them from harm – that is, its most basic responsibility,” Friedmann noted.

“The problem with CoreCivic prisons isn’t that they house a ‘different kind’ of prisoner, such as more violent offenders. The problem with CoreCivic prisons is that they are chronically and intentionally understaffed, and are therefore far more violent and unsafe than state-run prisons,” said Jeannie Alexander. “CoreCivic prisons also have higher rates of violence and stay on lockdown far more than state prisons. CoreCivic prisons foster a culture of neglect where trauma is not only the norm, but is expected. The problem with CoreCivic is CoreCivic, and for-profit prisons need to be abolished.”

According to the Daily Memphian, an online Tennessee newspaper, Governor Bill Lee expressed concern over the reported number of murders at CoreCivic facilities.

“I have an interest, for certain, to make sure that the services are being delivered by CoreCivic to the highest level ... and [to an] equally high level that they’re being delivered at the state. And if they’re not, then we certainly will take steps to correct that,” Governor Lee stated. 

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Sources: HRDC and No Exceptions Prison Collective joint press releases (July 10 and 15, 2019); dailymemphian.com; Associated Press