The Dirty 30 - #8 “Gold Star” Accreditation and “Impartial” Research

In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America is "celebrating" its thirtieth anniversary.  We believe there is nothing to celebrate about 30 years of profiting off of incarceration.  In response Grassroots Leadership and Public Safety and Justice Campaign published "The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About Thirty Years of Corrections Corporation of America," a list of thirty stories that exhibit the most troubling aspects of the company's history.  Each week we'll highlight one of these stories.  Click here to view the full report.  Printed copies are available in limited quanitity.  For more information please contact Kymberlie Quong Charles.

Throughout its history, CCA has claimed to uphold high operational standards, using both American Correctional Association (ACA) accreditation and a small body of research literature to demonstrate the advantages of prison privatization. What CCA fails to mention is the repeatedly exposed financial exchanges and close ties between the company and so-called impartial analysts.

One way CCA argues the quality of its facilities is ACA accreditation. The ACA is a private, non-governmental organization composed of current and former corrections employees that offers accreditation services of corrections facilities based on the company’s own self-created standards. The company’s cozy ties with the ACA go back to 1984, when CCA founder T. Don Hutto was the president of the ACA. There is no regulation of the ACA beyond its own employees, who include immediate past president Daron Hall (a former CCA program director) and at least one current CCA employee, Todd Thomas, who serves as an ACA auditor.[1] In August 2009, the ACA gave its stamp of approval to thirteen CCA managed facilities for $63,000, shortly after CCA sponsored ACA’s 139th Congress of Corrections conference banquet held in Nashville, Tennessee. ACA-accredited CCA facilities include the notorious Idaho Correctional Center or “Gladiator School”, Kentucky’s Otter Creek Correctional Center, where six CCA employees were charged with sexually abusing or raping prisoners, and Arizona’s Saguaro Correctional Center, in which two prisoners were murdered in 2010. Donna Corno, a former CCA employee who served as an accreditation manager, candidly admitted that she helped falsify documents for an ACA audit. “I was the person who doctored the ACA accreditation reports for this company," she stated in December 2008, referring to her employment at the CCA-operated Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Facility.

The successful conflict-of-interest charges against “independent” private prison researcher Dr. Charles Thomas are yet another case where the corrupt methods used by CCA to prove its superior performance have been publicly exposed. During the 1990s, Thomas (a professor at the University of Florida and founder of the Private Corrections Project) was repeatedly used by CCA as their leading academic supporter, cited as an authoritative voice on the superiority of privatized prisons over the public sector. In 1997, Thomas’ position as an independent analyst came into question after he was appointed to the board of CCA’s Prison Realty Trust - the real estate investment trust set up by CCA for tax reasons - and when it was revealed that he owned stock in private prison firms.[2] A subsequent investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics found that Thomas had also received $3 million in consulting fees from CCA/Prison Realty. Thomas was fined $20,000, the largest civil penalty in the ethics commission’s history, and forced to resign his academic post as a result.[3] Rather tellingly, Thomas later joined the board of Avalon Correctional Services, an operator of private community correctional facilities.[4] Nevertheless, his publications continue to be cited by the private prison industry as evidence of its superiority over state-run facilities.

In April, 2013 Temple University’s Center for Competitive Government released a study that examines the fiscal benefits of privatizing prisons. Its conclusions allege financial savings and equal or better performance by private prison companies compared to their government-run counterparts [5]. CCA promoted the report in state media markets and utilized social media to decry advocate claims contrary to the findings. According to an April 29, 2013 press release issued by Temple University [6], the study was funded by “members of the private corrections industry.” However, the report itself does not indicate that it was funded by private prison firms, nor that it was authored by two university researchers who have both previously advocated for the privatization of government functions, nor that the research was not peer reviewed [7]. CCA has made no mention of the study’s funding in either its public relations or in its citation of the study in its 2013 investor presentation [8].

In a May 22 press release issued by Private Corrections Institute, Professor Edward L. Queen, J.D., Director of Leadership Education at the Emory University Center for Ethics stated, “Any published or publicly released research should identify all sources of funding in support of that research. Especially any sources of funding that produce or could produce a conflict of interest.” [9]

  1. “CCA Pays Over $22,000 to American Correctional Association to Claim “Stamp of Approval” at Five Private Prisons,” PRWEB, July 9, 2010.
  2. Rick Brooks and Karen L. Tippett, “Leading Expert on Private Prisons Criticized for Taking REIT Seat,” Wall Street Journal (Southeast Journal), April 30, 1997, pg.S2.
  3. Dara Kam, “Ethics board fines UF Professor $20,000,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 22, 1999.
  4. “Avalon Correctional Services, Inc. Appoints Dr. Charles W. Thomas to Its Board of Directors,” Business Wire, May 17, 2001.
  5. “Contracted prisons cut costs without sacrificing quality, study finds”,, April 29, 2013.
  6. Press Release “Contracted prisons cut costs without sacrificing quality, study finds,” Temple University, April 29, 2013.
  7. “For-profit prison study funded by vested interest,” Kennebec Journal, June 6, 2013.
  8. Press Release “Research Study Finding Benefits from Prison Privatization Conveniently Funded by ‘Members of the Private Corrections Industry’” Private Corrections Institute, May 22, 2013.
  9. Ibid