Dirty 30 #12 | CCA Attempts Takeover of Entire Tennessee Prison System

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.

In 1985 the Tennessee prison system was in crisis. The state’s prisons were dramatically overcrowded thanks to a push to expand incarceration through tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Governor Lamar Alexander, whose wife Honey was an early investor in Corrections Corporation of America, called a special session of the legislature to deal with a federal court order that ruled the Tennessee prison system needed 7,000 prison beds to relieve its unconstitutionally overcrowded conditions. As a result, CCA proposed an audacious and at the time unheard of solution. [1] The company offered to buy the entire Tennessee prison system for $50 million in downpayment, $50 million over the course of 20 years, and a promise to make $150 million in improvements to the system. In return, CCA would be paid up to $175 million a year to operate the system and would be granted a 90 year lease. [2]

Governor Alexander was quick to endorse the idea, and the proposal splashed the company on the front page of the New York Times with a headline reading “Company Offers to Run Tennessee’s Prisons.” [3] Tennessee eventually turned down the offer to privatize its entire prison system. However, the state passed the Private Prison Contracting Act of 1986, which authorized the state to contract with a private company to operate one prison. Additionally, the media exposure helped the company to build its reputation, and paved the way for future prison takeover attempts. CCA co-founder Don Hutto commented, “It forced everyone to take us seriously. The offer ran on a full front page of the afternoon paper. We were a national story.” [4]

CCA attempted to take over Tennessee’s entire prison system a second time. In April 1997, Tennessee Representative Matt Kisber announced that closed-door meetings had been held with lawmakers and CCA lobbyists. Kisber joined Lieutenant Governor John Wilder in sponsoring a system-wide prison privatization bill, drafted by a CCA lobbyist. As well as citing potential budget savings of up to $100 million a year, CCA offered to pay an additional $100 million “franchise fee” to operate Tennessee’s prisons.

In the process of promoting the prison privatization bill, multiple close connections between CCA and local politicians were unearthed, most notably around the Nashville franchise Red Hot & Blue Barbecue. The franchise was founded by Governor Sundquist and his partners included CCA chairman emeritus Tom Beasley, Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh, the governor's wife Martha, and none other than Rep. Matt Kisber. Naifeh and Kisber disinvested in Red Hot & Blue after their partnership with Beasley became public knowledge. The bill was finally withdrawn on April 14, 1998. Rather ominously, CCA spokesperson Susan Hart commented, "There are always future [legislative] sessions." [5]

  1. Sam Howe Verhovek, “Politics: Personal Finances; Alexander Still Draws Scrutiny for Making Small Investments Pay Well,” New York Times, February 28, 1996.
  2. Donna Selman and Paul Leighton (2010) Punishment for Sale. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pg. 61.
  3. Donna Selman and Paul Leighton (2010) Punishment for Sale. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pg. 62.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Alex Friedmann, “Tennessee Prison Privatization Bill Fails to Pass,” Prison Legal News.