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CoreCivic Sued Over Prisoner Who Committed Suicide in Tennessee Prison

The incident and subsequent cover-up attempts led to a futile referral for criminal prosecution, though two employees were dismissed by CoreCivic, the nation’s second-largest private prison operator with 2019 revenues of $1.981 billion.

According to a report by The Jackson Sun, CoreCivic’s four Tennessee prisons have a suicide rate nearly double that of prisons operated by the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), accounting for 63 percent of the state’s prisoner suicides despite holding just 35 percent of the prisoner population.

Addison Smith, 27, was transferred to the South Tennessee Correctional Center in Clifton from the firm’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville on July 23, 2019. He was placed in administrative segregation because of suicide attempts and hallucinations dating back to his initial bipolar disorder diagnosis at age 10. He told a mental health counselor at the prison that he had been off his psychiatric medication for two weeks. But a psychiatric nurse practitioner did not meet with him until August 19, 2019.

That’s the day he was sexually assaulted. Marcayus Rose, a leader of the Gangster Disciples gang, was sent to segregation because other prisoners in general population complained that he was harassing them for sex. He was put in the cell with Smith and used threats to allegedly coerce him into unwanted sex acts.

Smith reported the sexual assault to a guard that day. He was physically evaluated at a local hospital. William Lyons, a mental health counselor at the prison, was supposed to provide mental health services to Smith after the rape. He did not. Three days later, on August 22, 2019, Smith was evaluated by Mark Sigler, a clinical psychologist who was the mental health supervisor at the prison.

On the report form describing the evaluation, Sigler indicated that no questions were asked about Smith’s suicidal behavior, his use of psychiatric medication, his psychiatric treatment history, or his history of drug abuse. Instead, a question mark was written between the “yes” and “no” boxes on the form, which was not signed for another four days — three days after Smith’s death.

Another, identical form, dated August 12, 2019 — 10 days before the examination — appeared in Smith’s file with all of the question boxes marked “n,” even though that was clearly wrong for three of the four questions.

Four days after the rape, on August 23, 2019, Smith killed himself. Surveillance video showed he hung a towel over his cell window at 7:17 p.m., but guards did not discover it until 45 minutes later. Even then, it took them another 31 minutes to enter the cell, when they found he had hanged himself. He was unable to be revived.

An autopsy showed he had not been fed the entire day, and guards admitted he had threatened multiple times to kill himself if not fed. But Sgt. Ashley Ackerman ignored the threats because she thought Smith was “playing a game.” She was subsequently fired, but none of the other four guards and supervisors who heard and ignored the threats were disciplined.

After Smith’s death, Lyons was caught fabricating records to make it appear he had met with Smith and provided rape-survivor counseling. CoreCivic internal investigators confronted Lyons, then they let him resign.

Both DOC Special Agent Nicky Jordan and CoreCivic Investigator Jessica Frakes submitted reports on Smith’s suicide.

The Frakes report, which was required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, failed to mention that staff knew Rose was pressuring other prisoners for sex. It also stated the incident had no racial motivation, though Addison was White and Rose a self-described leader in a Black prison gang. Nonetheless, both Warden Grady Perry and Assistant Warden Eddie Johnson signed off on the report.

By contrast, the Jordan report referred Ackerman and Lyons to Wayne County District Attorney Brent A. Cooper for criminal prosecution. However, Cooper showed no interest in the case of a prisoner’s death in a rural county.

With the assistance of Memphis attorney Janet H. Goode and Brooklyn, New York, attorney Ty Clevenger, Smith’s family filed a federal lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against CoreCivic and its guard and medical staff, as well as Rose, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment and state torts.

CoreCivic attorneys scrambled to file a motion to seal the Frakes and Jordan reports after they were publicly filed in federal court, attached to the complaint as exhibits. The motion was granted on August 24, 2020, but the Nashville Tennessean had already received copies by then, so the story got out despite CoreCivic’s attempt to quash it.

“The inmates I’ve interviewed generally say they would rather be in a state-run facility than a CoreCivic facility,” Clevenger said in a statement to the Tennessean. “I understand that prisons are not day care centers, but private prisons have a particularly bad track record for inmate health and safety.”

“Granted, prisons are intended for punishment,” he added, “but that doesn’t mean inmates should be raped, tortured, or killed by other inmates.” See: Smith v. CoreCivic, Inc., Case No. 3:20-cv-00563, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.). 


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Related legal case

Smith v. CoreCivic, Inc.