Alex Friedmann has been on a mission to shine light on the oft-guarded records kept by private prison organizations since his release from a Tennessee prison in 1999.
The main focus of Friedmann’s work has centered on a court case involving Corrections Corporation of America — a Nashville-based for-profit company that operates more than 60 prisons in 20 states. After six years of legal wrangling, Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, has won on most accounts.
The main issue is whether CCA is considered the “functional equivalent” of a governmental entity, opening their organization to the same level of transparency as required by the government. The Tennessee Court of Appeals has affirmed that CCA is a functional equivalent — twice.
The Court of Appeals ruled in Friedmann’s favor for a second time two weeks ago — affirming a Chancery Court ruling that ordered CCA to give Friedmann settlement agreements stemming from legal complaints against the company. CCA attempted to argue that the documents were protected “attorney work product.”
But Friedmann expects CCA — which brought in $436.9 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2012 — will continue the court fight.
In honor of open government advocates’ Sunshine Week 2013, The City Paper sat down to chat with Friedmann about his efforts.
Legal challenges are never cheap. What are the logistics behind some of your legal efforts against CCA? How does it work from your end?
Part of it simply is just the cost of ensuring good government. If you want results, you have to pay for those results. We live in a society where you get as much justice as you can afford, basically. So, in order to get things done, yes, you have to spend money to do it. You can’t expect people or companies to do the right thing or comply with the law.
It’s simply part of doing the business of the work that we do, which is trying to ensure a just and more equitable criminal justice system.
Speaking of money, CCA tops $1 billion in revenue each year. Does that make this challenge more difficult?
They have plenty of money, and they don’t mind spending it. Certainly, [given] the fact that they have litigated this case for over six years and taken it to appeal twice, I expect them to seek review again with the Tennessee Supreme Court. It’s not so much as wearing down as simply that they are trying to delay as long as possible their compliance with the law. In other words, they really don’t want to produce these records. They really, really don’t want to do it, so they are using every conceivable avenue they can find not to produce the records.
I would note that this would not have happened with a government agency. With a public agency, it’s very clearly established, they have to comply with the law, produce their settlement documents. No question, they would have produced it, and it would not have gone through six years of litigation. The difference is CCA is a for-profit company, even though they perform the exact same governmental function as the department of corrections or the sheriff’s department. In fact, 99 percent of their revenue is from taxpayer dollars through government contracts. Despite that … they are very non-transparent.
Do you think your status as a former inmate has worked for or against you in these proceedings?
Legally, there is no difference. Legally, people who are currently incarcerated in death row units in Tennessee still avail themselves to the law. Law is supposed to be provided to everyone equally. Even those prisoners can file record requests ... that’s part of democracy.
I don’t think my status as a former prisoner necessarily makes a difference. If anything, I think it’s potentially an advantage, because having been in the system, I know what to ask for, I know what type of records are kept, and I know what kind of records CCA is refusing to produce.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a number of things. On the federal level, we have the same type of problem with the Freedom of Information Act that does not apply to private prison companies that house federal inmates. We’re currently working on a campaign to have the Private Prison Information Act, which is congressional legislation that would extend FOIA to private prison contractors.