Showing posts with label Tennessee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tennessee. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Private prison operator holds close ties with lawmakers as it sidesteps state law

 By Sam Stockard

CoreCivic expanded in Tennessee with three local government contracts

Flush with donations from CoreCivic, Tennessee’s lawmakers have spent the past three years enacting tough-on-crime policy that could help the state’s private-prison operator in spite of complaints that profiting on the backs of inmates is bad business.

Moves to create laws that require teenagers to be tried as adults for certain crimes and remove rewards for prisoners’ good behavior are likely to lead to higher incarceration rates, critics say. 

The changes are expected to put Brentwood-based CoreCivic, a national prison operator, in better position to continue to exploit a little-known state loophole that allows it to run four Tennessee prisons. 

Privately-run prisons have been a point of contention in Tennessee since the mid-1980s, so much so that state law prohibited more than one state contract with Corrections Corporation of America — the company’s name until rebranded as CoreCivic in 2016 — when it obtained its first Tennessee deal with the help of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers.

The company contracts with Tennessee to run one of its prisons and has deals with two local governments to operate three other state prisons. 

The agreement has allowed CoreCivic to circumvent the original state law, enabling it to make $233 million last year from its Tennessee prison contracts. 

Overall in 2023, CoreCivic generated about $1.9 billion in revenue through state and federal contracts, though it recently lost a deal in Texas to run an immigrant holding facility there.

The company continues to hold a close relationship with Tennessee lawmakers, mainly Republicans, giving to them lavishly over the last 15 years. 

CoreCivic’s CEO, Damon Hininger, spoke at the most recent state Republican annual fundraising dinner, making overtures for a gubernatorial run in two years. 

CoreCivic also was one of the main sponsors at Tennessee’s recent Republican National Convention delegate dinner in Milwaukee. U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin and House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville were among the speakers at the dinner. 

Other sponsors of the RNC dinner were FedEx, Lee Beaman and Julie Hannah, The Coggin Group, Eastman Chemical and Cash Express founder Garry McNabb.

Sexton was the main proponent of harsher sentencing laws that reduced early releases for inmates who showed good behavior and often got out after doing only 30% of their time. The Crossville Republican also is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would eliminate bail for numerous violent offenses, requiring defendants in most criminal cases to stay in jail until their court date. 

The company has donated $44,500 to Sexton since he first came into office in 2011. 

How the loophole works

CoreCivic contracts with Hardeman County in West Tennessee to run Hardeman County Correctional Facility at a rate of $51 million annually, Whiteville Correctional Facility for $46.4 million a year and with Trousdale County to operate Trousdale Turner for $77.7 million annually. 

Those entities, in turn, contract with the state for prison services. 

CoreCivic’s only contract with the Tennessee Department of Correction is for $47.8 million annually to run South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton.

The department received approval from lawmakers last year to increase payments to CoreCivic with the stamp of approval from Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Frank Strada who told the Lookout he is satisfied with the company’s efforts to improve their policies and operations.

The state boosted its payout to CoreCivic by $7 million despite a bad audit that showed persistent personnel shortages, the second weak report it received from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office in the last few years. For instance, the prison company sustained a 146% turnover rate in 2023 because of difficulty hiring correctional officers, making it harder to monitor prisoners and avert safety risks.

Frank Strada, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction: "Very comfortable" with private prison contract CoreCivic. (Photo: John Partipilo)
 Frank Strada, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction: “Very comfortable” with private prison contract CoreCivic. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lawmakers approved the increase even though CoreCivic paid $20 million in liquidated damages in recent years for failing to meet contract requirements.

Parents of three inmates who died in CoreCivic-run prisons in a four-month period in 2021 accused the private company of prioritizing profits over safety in a lawsuit against the state.

Yet Brian Todd, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, said the partnership with the state has been a success.

“We’re proud of the innovative solutions we’ve provided to those individuals that the Tennessee Department of Correction has entrusted to our care, which help prepare them to successfully return to their communities, while also saving taxpayers money,” Todd said.

Todd did not specify what types of savings the company makes for the state. He pointed out the state determines prison capacity and operational needs and works with the governor’s office and lawmakers to address them.

Taking aim at CoreCivic

Private prisons leave a bad taste with many members of the state Legislature, even though many prefer not to speak about the situation publicly.

Democratic state Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis has opposed CoreCivic’s arrangements for years.

“I’m not comfortable with anybody making money off of prisons. Any time you have a profit incentive, that’s directly counter-intuitive to making the best decisions for your clients who are a combination of the inmates and the public,” Hardaway said.

Hardaway contends “justice” should be paid for and managed by the public/government.

“That’s the only way it’s gonna be balanced,” he said. “You can’t always make decisions that are going to be profitable for the management. That’s why you’ve gotta keep private management out of it.”

Democratic state Rep. Justin J. Pearson of Memphis argues that several criminal justice bills approved this year are “intended to fund the corporations who are profiting off of the backs of Black folks, white folks, poor folks and everyone in between.”

I’m not comfortable with anybody making money off of prisons. Any time you have a profit incentive, that’s directly counter-intuitive to making the best decisions for your clients who are a combination of the inmates and the public.

– Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis

While state officials continue pouring money into CoreCivic contracts, Pearson argues the “litany of unjust laws” won’t get at the root causes of crime or lead to rehabilitation.

“Our state should invest in its people and our future, not promulgate destructive policies that only incarcerate,” he said.

Both parties brought CoreCivic in

Despite criticism from today’s Democrats, both parties played a role in the company’s ascension in Tennessee, though Republicans have been its biggest boosters.

Founded as Corrections Corporation of America in the early 1980s, it obtained its first contract with the state in 1985 under Lamar Alexander, the former Republican governor and eventual U.S. senator. His wife was a stockholder in the company, as was then-House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, a Democrat who in 1999 became a board member of Prison Realty Trust, the holding company for CoreCivic, years after leaving office.

When Republican Don Sundquist became governor in 1994, the company made more inroads around 1995 but had to find a way around the state law allowing only one contract with a private prison operator. 

It started working with local governments.

Access through donations

CoreCivic and its predecessor have long been a financial backer of the state’s top leaders, and the practice continues. 

Prison Legal News reported that during the Sundquist era, company executives gave nearly $60,500 to state lawmakers, $38,500 of that to Sundquist’s election campaign in 1994. 

At the time, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Randy Rinks received $2,000, and Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis, chairman of the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections, received $1,350 from executives, according to a Prison Legal News article.

Sundquist supported the local government deal in 1995 allowing CoreCivic to contract with Hardeman County for a 1,540-bed facility paid for with $47 million in municipal bonds backed by the state. The former governor’s chief of staff, Peaches Simpkins, also reportedly held company stock in that era, and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s wife, Betty Anderson, was a company lobbyist, Prison Legal News reported.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, has received $65,000 from private prison contractor CoreCivic over the last 15 years. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, has received $65,000 from private prison contractor CoreCivic over the last 15 years. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The relationship between CoreCivic and top lawmakers remains tight.

Since 2009, the company has given $138,000 to Republican Party and caucus political actions committees and $7,500 to the Tennessee Democratic Caucus.

Gov. Bill Lee has been its biggest beneficiary over the last few years, receiving $69,000, including a donation to his inaugural funds, according to a Tennessee Lookout analysis of campaign finances.

But Lee has not always been a proponent of harsher sentencing, running on a criminal justice reform platform in 2018. He did not support the law making it harder to be released for good behavior, but instead of vetoing it, he let it become law without his signature. 

Other top recipients since 2009 include

  • Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, $65,000 over the past 15 years
  • Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager of Kingston: $17,500
  • Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin: $14,500 
  • House Republican Majority Leader William Lamberth of Portland: $14,250
  • Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat, $13,500. Two prisons are located in his West Tennessee district.
  • Senate Republican Majority Leader Johnson of Franklin: $9,000 
  • Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey of Kingsport: $8,500 
  • Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald: $8,000
  • Republican Sen. Bo Watson of Hixon: $7,500, 
  • Republican Sen. Ed Jackson of Jackson: $7,200, 
  • Republican Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson $7,000.

CoreCivic’s spokesman points out the company supports local elected officials “in accordance with all applicable laws. Any insinuation otherwise is false.”

Adam Friedman contributed to this report.


This article originally appeared in Tennessee Lookout on July 23rd, 2024

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Wednesday, July 3, 2024

If Tennessee was its own country, it would have the 9th highest incarceration rate in the world

By Adam Friedman


Tennessee has one of the highest rates of people put in jail or prison, a report released by the Prison Policy Institute found.

With more than 5,500 people in local jails or state and federal prisons, Tennessee has the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the world based on population if each U.S. state were considered its own country. Seven states, mainly in the U.S. South, and El Salvador are the only places that have higher rates of people in jails or prisons.

The Prison Policy Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that produces research and reports to “expose the broader harm of mass criminalization.”

The incarceration rate report analyzes prison data from various U.S. counties, states and other countries, using population data to find which ones have the most people locked up.

“Many of the countries that rank alongside the least punitive U.S. states, such as Turkmenistan, Belarus, Russia, and Azerbaijan, have authoritarian or dictatorial governments, but the U.S. — the land of the free — still incarcerates more people per capita than almost every other nation,” wrote Emily Wildra in the report, published at the end of June.

The Prison Policy Initiative has produced this prison rate report since at least 2016. Tennessee’s incarceration rate has slightly dropped over time, but not at the rate of some other U.S. states.


Arizona’s incarceration rate is 18% lower compared to 2021. Tennessee’s rate dropped by 2% over the same period.

New state laws, referred to as “Truth in Sentencing,” to restrict how quickly those convicted of certain felonies can qualify for parole are likely to reverse some of these trends.

State Republican lawmakers are also pushing for changes to Tennessee’s bail system, making it easier to revoke it. The change would require a constitutional amendment, which could appear on the ballot for voters as soon as 2026


This article originally appeared in the Tennessee Lookout on July 3rd, 2024

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.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Report: nearly half of Tennessee households don’t earn enough to meet basic expenses

By Anita Wadhwani

Nearly half of all Tennessee working families cannot afford the basic cost of living in their counties, according to new analyses of Census and federal economic data by the United Way of Tennessee.

The report examined the challenges facing households that earned more than the federal poverty level but, nevertheless, struggle to make ends meet.

While the number of households living in poverty decreased by nearly 5,000 across the state between 2021 and 2022, more than 34,214 households were added to the category of Tennesseans unable to pay for basic needs despite earnings that put them above the poverty level. In total, the report found that 1.2 million Tennessee households fall into this category.

The report concluded that the “survival budget” necessary for a family of four increased to $75,600 between 2021 and 2022. The budget includes the cost of housing, food, childcare, transportation and healthcare — all of which grew more expensive. In 33 Tennessee counties, more than half of all households failed to earn enough to meet their survival budgets.

While wages have increased in that time period, the 20 most common occupations in Tennessee still pay less than $20 per hour, the report found. These include jobs like sales, truck driving, administrative assistants and elementary school teachers.

Although poverty levels for Tennessee kids have shrunk, the report found that 38% of working Tennessee families with children at home did not earn enough to keep up with basic expenses.

This article originally appeared in Tennessee Lookout on June 7th, 2024

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Monday, May 27, 2024

Tennessee rep calls Memphis preemption bill worse than “overreach”

By Sam Stockard

Governor signs measure turning back city ordinance despite speaking with mother of slain motorist

A Memphis state representative is calling a preemption bill signed into law by the governor more than a case of “overreach” as it turns back efforts to stop “pretextual” traffic stops such as those that led to the 2023 death of motorist Tyre Nichols.

“The majority once again is more concerned with being patriarchal and telling us poor folks in Memphis and Shelby County how to live and taking the authority that’s been vested by the voters and really making it moot,” Democratic state Rep. G.A. Hardaway said Monday. 

The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation this year prohibiting a Memphis City Council ban on “pretextual” stops, including those for a bad tail light. Only stops for “primary” offenses were to be allowed.

The Legislature’s move came after Nichols’ parents, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, worked with Memphis officials to end stereotyping that can turn into violent incidents. 

Nichols died in January 2023 after being pulled over for reckless driving, then was beaten by police officers. The death led to local requests for a federal investigation of Memphis police policies. 

The majority once again is more concerned with being patriarchal and telling us poor folks in Memphis and Shelby County how to live and taking the authority that’s been vested by the voters and really making it moot.

– Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis

Gov. Bill Lee said last week he spoke with Mrs. Wells during this year’s session as she lobbied against the bill. He noted he appreciated her ability to express her views passionately without being disrespectful and even found her approach “inspirational.”

Yet he signed the bill she opposed anyway, pointing out he disagreed with her views on the legislation.

Five police officers were charged in connection with Nichols’ death, and one pleaded guilty in November 2023 to federal and state charges.

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Memphis Police practices continues, according to Hardaway, who sought the federal probe of police policy after helping lead a local group that put together police statistics.

The Wells family could not be reached for comment on the governor’s decision to sign the bill into law. But during the 2023 session, Mrs. Wells said she felt police were “harassing the Black citizens of Memphis.” Her husband contended police are “discriminating” against people of color, and, as a result, “too many parents are going through what we’re going through — senselessly.”

The legislation reversing Memphis’ traffic stop ordinance was sponsored by Republican Sen. Brent Taylor of Memphis and Republican Rep. John Gillespie of Memphis.

Rep. John Gillespie called for a vote on a measure limiting local officials' ability to monitor police traffic stops. (Photo: John Partipilo)
 Rep. John Gillespie called for a vote on a measure limiting local officials’ ability to monitor police traffic stops. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gillespie also spoke with the Wells family during this year’s session but moved ahead with his bill when they weren’t present and said those who oppose state traffic laws should change them instead of “enacting local ordinances that are in conflict with state law.” Gillespie came under criticism for bringing the bill up for a House vote several days after the Wells family visited the State Capitol to lobby against the measure.

Taylor also was adamantly opposed to the Memphis ordinance and backed several law-and-order measures in hopes of curbing crime in urban Shelby County.

Hardaway argues that most Shelby County residents supported the local ordinance and added he is “suspicious” that the bill’s passage had more to do with political contributions than good law enforcement policy.

He was unaware the governor had spoken with the Wells family but said, “They’re very gracious in the way they accommodate individuals who think like they think and those who don’t. They know that there’s a certain level of sensitivity that some people are gonna express but it won’t be followed up by any real serious work to prevent the circumstances that caused Tyre Nichols’ death.”

Local research presented to the U.S. Department of Justice verified there was enough evidence to show patterns of discriminatory police work, Hardaway said. He was uncertain when the federal report would be finished.

This article originally appeared in the Tennessee Lookout on May 24th, 2024.

  

Please support the news you can use and visit The Brooks Blackboard's website for more news!   

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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Tough-on-crime bill imposing adult sentences on juveniles heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk

By Anita Wadhwani

Senator says the measure brings “massive repercussions,” complicated jurisdiction and legal questions


Teens as young as 14 years old who commit serious crimes in Tennessee will face up to five years of adult incarceration or probation once their juvenile sentence ends under a bill now awaiting Gov. Bill Lee’s likely signature.

The measure also requires juvenile court judges to automatically transfer 16- and 17- year olds facing first and second degree murder, or attempted murder, to adult court. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Juvenile sentencing bill in Tennessee House sparks constitutional questions


Kids as young as 14 could get up to five years in prison on top of juvenile sentences without a jury trial


A get-tough-on-juvenile-crime bill is raising concerns among Tennessee juvenile judges, advocates and attorneys, who call portions of the measure “likely unconstitutional.”


The House bill from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville could stack up to five years in adult prison on top of a juvenile sentence for kids as young as 14 who have committed serious crimes.

A separate component of the bill would require juvenile court judges to automatically transfer 16- and 17- year olds facing charges of first and second degree murder, or attempted murder, to adult court.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Senate clears gallery, passes bill to arm Tennessee teachers


Minutes after clearing the gallery of people opposed to pro-gun legislation, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday allowing teachers to go armed at school.

The bill’s passage came a little more than a year after six people, including three 9-year-olds, were killed in a mass shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian facility in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

State contracting with 20 firms for $415M law enforcement training project

BY:  - OCTOBER 12, 2023 

Tennessee is hiring nearly 20 contractors to build a massive $415 million law enforcement training center on state property in Cockrill Bend.

State officials broke ground recently at the 600-acre site, located near Riverbend Maximum Security Institution where Death Row inmates are housed in north Nashville, joined by law enforcement leaders from across the state. 

Department of Correction and Department of Safety and Homeland Security offices will be housed there, along with training facilities for state troopers and officers, including dorms, a driving track and K-9 kennels.

“This site represents one of the best examples of inter-agency cooperation Tennessee has ever seen,” Brandon Gibson, chief operating officer for Gov. Bill Lee, said at a recent ceremony. “It represents the future of law enforcement training in Tennessee, and this site represents the governor’s and the General Assembly’s dedication to law enforcement in this state.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, both members of the State Building Commission, supported the project, and Gov. Bill Lee credited their backing with helping fund it. Sexton noted it provides a “long-term vision” for the future of law enforcement training.

Lee said he started touring law enforcement training facilities statewide to check on conditions after he took office nearly five years ago.

“I remember walking through facilities where tiles were missing and 40-year-old bathrooms and bunk rooms that I wouldn’t want to stay in, and I got a vision that day, almost four and a half years ago that we needed to do something different,” Lee said.

Though the governor appeared to take responsibility for birthing the project, the Department of General Services started work on the law enforcement training center as early as 2017, if not earlier, before Lee won his first election.

I’m not a big supporter of it because of the nature of it, but I do support our police officers in training because I believe this is going to be a combination with the FBI.

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville

Only about five state lawmakers turned out for the groundbreaking ceremony two weeks ago, none of them representing Davidson County.

Democratic state Rep. Vincent Dixie, whose district contains the property, said he received an email blast inviting lawmakers shortly after the governor’s special session on public safety ended but that it wasn’t the normal protocol and he didn’t see it and, thus, didn’t attend. The governor’s office usually calls lawmakers to invite them to a special event in their district, he noted.

Dixie has mixed emotions about the project. He wants to avoid a “Cops City” such as the center built in Atlanta, and he believes officers should go through “cultural sensitivity” as well as technical training.

“I’m not a big supporter of it because of the nature of it, but I do support our police officers in training because I believe this is going to be a combination with the FBI,” Dixie said.

Besides the law enforcement training center, the Lee Administration put $150 million into a violent crime prevention fund, $60 million toward state trooper bonuses and funding to hire 200 more highway patrolmen.

A portion of the property lies within the floodplain of the Cumberland River, but the state doesn’t plan to construct any major buildings in those areas, and other steps are being taken to minimize the impact of a potential flood, according to Parks.

Contractors lined up

The state opted to go with multiple construction managers based on efficiency and risk management. It also hired several design firms because of the size of the job and specialized components such as housing, dining, infrastructure, and various simulated training areas that required certain knowledge.

Breaking the project into “smaller sub-projects” allows the state to evaluate designers and construction managers for each section, said Michelle Sandes Parks, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services.

The method also allows the state to bring in the contractor earlier to help with design elements such as “constructability,” obtaining materials, putting together estimates and scheduling to minimize risks on timing and costs, she said.

Environmental consulting: $750,000

Environmental remediation: $1.5 million

Survey services: $475,000

Design and contingency: $19.2 million

Consultant services: $2.5 million

Commissioning: $1.5 million

Preconstruction: $1.08

State’s equipment: $9

State furniture fixtures: $17.25

Moving services: $1.02

Technology/phone: $8.3 million

Audio/video equipment: $3.37 million

Security: $4.65 million

Administration: $41.9

“In the end, there is no guarantee that a single construction manager or even the use of a different delivery method would cost the state less,” Parks said in a statement.

Kline Swinney Associates is slated to do the master planning and coordination for the entire project while EnSafe Environmental is conducting environmental studies and testing along with Smith Seckman Reid (SSRCx), which is involved in commissioning and testing.

The state is using what is called a construction manager method for the project, a situation in which the state negotiates a cost with a contractor, which then works with the designer to complete the job, taking on a bit more risk. Because of the project’s magnitude, construction managers are being used on every facet.

The construction cost is $287.8 million, but the total cost includes several other factors. (See box at right.) 

The state put $23 million in the fiscal 2021-22 budget and $355.6 million in the fiscal 2022-23 budget for the project. Another $5 million is coming out of Department of General Services operating funds and $31.5 million is coming out of a reserve fund.

The Department of General Services was unable to provide a breakdown for the amount it will be paying each contractor.

  • AECOM and Barge Civil Associates will handle design for infrastructure and site work, and Environmental Abatement Inc. is doing demolition work. No construction manager has been hired for that part of the work.
  • Kline Swinney Associates will design a firing range complex, and Reeves + Young was approved for construction management. The company was involved in work at the police training facility in Atlanta called Cop City, which has been under protest by groups opposed to building a large law enforcement training complex in a wooded area there.
  • TMPartners is designing the training academy building, and Turner Construction is the construction management contractor for that part of the project.
  • Earl Swensson Associates is designing the housing, dining and kennel building, and Hoar Construction is the construction management contractor for that part of the project.
  • The Pickering Firm is doing design work for a track on which to train emergency vehicle operators. The construction management contractor hasn’t been hired.
  • Anecdote Architectural Experiences will design the headquarters building, and Messer Construction will be the construction manager.