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Tennessee private prison operator ramps up campaign spending

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 07, 2022 12:13 PM CT | Published: November 06, 2022 4:00 AM CT
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Inmates and workers at prisons run by CoreCivic — the publicly traded Tennessee-based company that operates four of the state’s 14 prisons — face “horrific” conditions, according to Pamela Wilson.

Wilson, a former probation officer married to a retired police chief, worked for four months in 2016 at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center northeast of Nashville to prepare the prison for an audit.

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Since then, she’s operated a Facebook page called Trousdale Turner — Close It Down, on which she shares news about private prisons and stories from inmates. She said she has lost respect for politicians who allow CoreCivic to operate.

“What I saw during those four months bothered me so much that I’m still here six years later, writing this page,” she told The Daily Memphian.

Wilson said workers espouse an “anti-inmate, kind of a warzone, us-versus-them mentality.” She said she saw workers refuse medical care to inmates with injuries or physical or mental health crises.

Her accounts of the private prison company’s facilities are echoed in numerous lawsuits, media reports and a critical audit by the state comptroller.

Wilson said lawmakers turn a blind eye to it.

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“They do not care at all about individuals, families and people,” she said of politicians who accept campaign contributions from the company. “Legislators are willing to be bought off so cheaply.”

CoreCivic has contributed more to Tennessee’s politicians than most other entities and has spent a significant amount on lobbying.

Now, the company has begun its election-season spending on political campaigns.

CoreCivic gave $107,490 to Tennessee politicians and PACs from July to September, a campaign finance report filed Oct. 5 shows. In the past year, the company has spent $209,990 on lobbying.

Almost all of CoreCivic’s campaign spending went to incumbent Republicans, with the biggest contributions going to Tennessee’s three most powerful men: Gov. Bill Lee, state House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).

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<strong>Bill Lee</strong>

Bill Lee

Critics say these campaign contributions make officials less likely to hold the company accountable.

“Politicians who are bought by the company limit liability for the company,” Memphis criminal defense attorney Mike Working said in an interview.

<strong>Cameron Sexton</strong>

Cameron Sexton

But recipients say campaign money doesn’t impact their decisions or make them beholden to donors.

<strong>Randy McNally</strong>

Randy McNally

“A list of Lt. Governor McNally’s campaign contributors are a list of people who support him, his actions and his policies — not the other way around,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider wrote in a statement. “CoreCivic absolutely needs to abide by its contract with the state. Lt. Governor McNally is confident TDOC (the Tennessee Department of Correction) will work to ensure that happens.”

A spokesman for CoreCivic objected to the descriptions of poor living and working conditions. 

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“First, I’d challenge the premise of the critics’ allegations you cite,” Steve Owen, CoreCivic’s vice president of communications, wrote in the email. Owen said the company has “every incentive” to provide high-quality services for the state, just as any company does for its customers.

“Today, as we have for nearly 40 years, CoreCivic provides a high standard of care for every person in our Tennessee facilities,” Owen wrote. “That includes quality reentry programming, comprehensive healthcare, faith-based support and many other services. Our facilities provide a safe, secure, humane and appropriate environment for those in our care.”

Sexton’s spokesman shared the following statement:

“There is full transparency in all contributions and expenditures as required by state law,” spokesman Doug Kufner said. “We are holding public hearings with our judicial committee members concerning TDOC. We have had a lot of concerns identified, and we will continue to monitor.”

The numbers

Most of CoreCivic’s Tennessee political spending came on two days.

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The first was Jan. 4, days before the start of this year’s legislative session — during which lawmakers are not allowed to raise campaign funds. The second was Aug. 16, not long after the party primaries.

CoreCivic gave Lee two installments of $12,700 — one for the primary, one for the general election — totaling $25,400. (It also gave more than $20,000 to his 2018 campaign.) It gave $10,000 each to Sexton’s and McNally’s PACs in January and August, totaling $20,000 each. It gave $20,000 to Latinos for Tennessee last November.

Democrats also accepted money from the company. It gave $1,500 to state Rep. Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar), whose district includes Whiteville, the home of two CoreCivic facilities, and $1,000 to Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville.

<strong>Johnny Shaw</strong>

Johnny Shaw

It gave $2,500 to the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus in August, but the caucus did not cash that check. State House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) also appears to have rejected a $1,000 check in January.

<strong>Jeff Yarbro</strong>

Jeff Yarbro

Republican state Rep. John Gillespie was the only Memphian to whom CoreCivic contributed during the July-September period.

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This spending places the company among Tennessee’s highest-spending PACs. According to Nashville NewsChannel 5, which put together spending data from 2017 to 2021 for the top 150 spenders, CoreCivic ranked 30th.

<strong>John Gillespie</strong>

John Gillespie

In addition to campaign spending, the company also spends heavily on lobbying.

This year, it reported spending between $100,000 and $150,000 on lobbyist compensation, according to its annual disclosure. On top of that were $50,000 in “aggregate total of in-state events” and less than $10,000 in lobbying-related expenses.

Lee’s campaign spokeswoman directed inquiries to his state office, which did not respond. Shaw and Yarbro did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Williamson County-based company has faced harsh criticism for consistently failing to meet staffing levels and accusations that it has skimped on required investments in order to boost profits.

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Its facilities have a murder rate four times higher than state-run facilities, a 2019 report showed. An audit by the state comptroller found CoreCivic maintains unreliable data and has destroyed public records.

Meanwhile, new laws are expected to increase incarceration and cause the state to spend millions more on it. Because prisons are already over 90% capacity, Republican lawmakers say they’re willing to build more prisons.

About 31% of Tennessee’s inmates were in CoreCivic facilities in 2020, according to the Sentencing Project. Only three states (Hawaii, Montana and New Mexico) have higher percentages of their inmates in private prisons.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., ended relationships with private prisons between 2000 and 2020.

CoreCivic has had more than $18.4 million docked from the state’s payments since 2018, officials from the Tennessee Department of Correction said at a September hearing. The state pays the company roughly $180 million annually.

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From fiscal years 2019 to 2020, it paid $7.5 million in liquidated damages for understaffing. In fiscal year 2021 alone, that amount rose to $10.9 million.

“There’s no doubt that our government partners in Tennessee hold us accountable, and we welcome it,” Owen wrote, saying corrections officials have “unfettered access to our facilities.”

“If issues are raised through any of these channels, we work to address them quickly.”

Despite a financial downturn since last year, CoreCivic maintains a massive amount of resources, due in large part to its fairly stable contracts with governments across the U.S. It describes itself as the “nation’s largest private owner of correctional, detention, and residential reentry facilities.”

It had $3.27 billion in total assets as of Sept. 30, according to its quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, down from $3.5 billion the year before.

For the nine-month period ending June 30, its net income was $97.9 million, and its total revenue was $1.37 billion.

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The company said a recent executive order by President Joe Biden, which ended some federal contracts with private prisons, was among its primary risks. In a 2021 SEC filing, it identified bad press and political opposition to private prisons as risks.

“Resistance to privatization of correctional, detention, and residential reentry facilities, and negative publicity regarding inmate disturbances or perceived poor operational performance, could result in our inability to obtain new contracts, the loss of existing contracts, or other unforeseen consequences,” its 2021 filing stated.

Owen said the company supports elected officials who are open-minded about private prisons as an “important tool” for their government partners. He said those political contributions don’t stop the state from auditing and monitoring its compliance.

“Through political giving, we support individuals across party affiliations who are open to the solutions that partnership corrections can provide to serious national challenges, such as reducing recidivism and alleviating prison overcrowding,” he wrote.

‘Chronic, profit-motivated deliberate indifference’

Daniel Horwitz, a Nashville defense attorney, tells a different story.

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Horwitz has represented the families of multiple inmates who were killed at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, arguing their deaths were caused by the lack of staffing and infrequent checks by guards.

In one complaint, Horwitz said CoreCivic operated with “chronic, profit-motivated deliberate indifference” and was “willing to tolerate preventable deaths.” He wrote that any penalties would be less expensive than the cost of staffing facilities at the levels required to prevent the incidents that lead them to be penalized.

“As a result (of its for-profit nature), CoreCivic severely understaffs Trousdale Turner Correctional Center while willfully disregarding inmate safety there,” Horwitz wrote.

“With each additional preventable death that occurs at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center that is not met with meaningful regulatory action,” he wrote, “CoreCivic is emboldened by the knowledge that it may continue to act with deliberate indifference toward inmate safety and allow inmates to die needlessly in its care without fear of experiencing meaningful legal consequences.”


CoreCivic Tennessee Department Of Correction campaign finance Trousdale Turner Correctional Center Bill Lee Randy McNally Cameron Sexton Mike Working Adam Kleinheider Steve Owen Doug Kufner private prisons prison reform Johnny Shaw Jeff Yarbro John Gillespie
Ian Round

Ian Round

Ian Round is The Daily Memphian’s state government reporter based in Nashville. He came to Tennessee from Maryland, where he reported on local politics for Baltimore Brew. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in December 2019.


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