Judge favors plaintiff in private prison case

By AP / Canadian Business | December 01, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Nashville judge ruled Thursday that private prison company Corrections Corporation of America must turn over more documents to a magazine that advocates for the rights of prisoners.

CCA had argued that the settlement documents sought by the plaintiff were confidential and handled by the prison’s general counsel, which operates independently and isn’t connected in any way to the state.

But Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled once again that CCA is subject to Tennessee’s open records law because it is the equivalent of a government agency, and that no government entity can enter into a confidential settlement.

Alex Friedmann, a former prisoner who is now an editor at Prison Legal News, sent a letter to CCA in April 2007 asking for information on settlements, judgments and complaints against the company.

He sued CCA when the company refused to turn over the information, claiming it wasn’t subject to the state’s open records law. Bonnyman also heard the case in 2008, siding with Friedmann and ordering the company to turn over most of the records.

CCA appealed, arguing once again that it wasn’t subject to the law. The Tennessee Court of Appeals later upheld Bonnyman’s ruling that CCA is the equivalent of a government agency by running state prisons, and is subject to the open records law.

The prison turned over some documents, such as contracts. But Friedmann is still seeking verdicts against the company and settlement agreements with prisoners.

In her ruling Thursday, Bonnyman said the magazine won’t be able to get the documents until an appeal is resolved, and CCA’s attorneys have indicated they will likely appeal.

However, Friedmann said he doesn’t mind waiting because he views the judge’s latest ruling as a victory that sends a message once again that “CCA is considered a public agency when operating prisons and jails, and must comply with the Public Records Act.”

“This ruling provides some much needed transparency to CCA’s operations in Tennessee,” he said. “CCA has fought hard to avoid releasing records that would be public if sought from any government agency that runs prisons or jails.”

The ruling only applies to Tennessee prisons, not federal prisons or other facilities in other states that CCA runs.

CCA houses 75,000 offenders and detainees in more than 60 facilities with more than 80,000 beds — more than half those under private operation in the country, according to its website. Forty-four of the facilities are owned by the company, which employs 17,000 people.

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