An activist fights to make CCA more transparent — by joining the ranks of its stockholders

Jailhouse Crock
by Jonathan Meador @JonathanMeador May 17, 2012 New City Limits
Nashville Scene

"What're you guys doin' over here?"

A man wearing a button-down shirt tucked into a pair of crisp khakis approaches the sign-wielding crowd, one hand resting on the strap of the messenger bag slung across his shoulder. Within the throng of activists, Alex Friedmann cocks his head to meet the man's face.

"We're protesting!" he answers.

Friedmann, a slim 43-year-old clad in a dark suit and sporting even darker sunglasses, points to the five-story building behind him. There, two security guards patrol the paved cul-de-sac at the structure's entrance, monitoring the group's activity from a distance.

"We're protesting for-profit incarceration outside the headquarters of the nation's largest for-profit incarcerator," Friedmann says.

"Oh, I didn't realize this was CCA," the man replies. "Not many of you here for such a big issue."

"It's a morning on a weekday," Friedmann says, acknowledging the small turnout. "And not many people care, unfortunately, unless they have someone they love who's been in prison, or been in prison themselves, or have the moral inclination to recognize you shouldn't incarcerate people for the purpose of generating corporate profit."

That's a lot to lay on a total stranger. But the man, who declined to divulge his name to the Scene, says he was locked up for three years in a private prison for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.

"I saw everything you guys are talking about firsthand," he says. "It's not a war on drugs. It's a war on Americans. ... Too bad there aren't more of you all out here."

Only 20 people have shown up today, most of them members of social justice-minded Christian congregations from Nashville and beyond. Some, like Larry Watson, traveled with a contingent of the Washington, D.C.-based group Church of Christ, Right Now, calling their journey to CCA "the work of Christ."

The Rev. Marvin Morgan of the Brook Meade United Church of Christ lambastes the company for what he believes is a fundamentally immoral business model.

"We believe that when states incarcerate people they are providing a rendering of what they believe to be a public service, and that service is provided with a high degree of public accountability," Morgan says. "When that service is [outsourced] to the highest bidder, whose goal is to make a profit as soon as possible, the whole issue of rehabilitation, alternative sentencing, redemption and forgiveness drops out of the equation."

But in this nebulous post-Occupy landscape — where the spectacle of protest fails to capture the waning attention of the public, not to mention the mainstream media already gorging themselves on coverage of November's impending presidential melee — any action taken by a former inmate and a baker's dozen of Christian activists might get easily swept out the door. That might have happened here, but for one important caveat: Alex Friedmann owns 191 shares of stock in Corrections Corporation of America.

For the first time, Friedmann — a former CCA prisoner jailed in the 1990s for armed robbery, now associate editor of Prison Legal News and an activist for the Human Rights Defense Center — will "occupy" the boardroom of CCA's Green Hills headquarters in an attempt to effect change in the company. As an active shareholder in the nation's largest for-profit private prison company, Friedmann plans to use his leverage to introduce a shareholder resolution that if adopted by the company's board would force CCA to divulge information on its efforts to combat rape and sexual abuse of its prisoners and to provide more detailed information on the sexual crimes that occur throughout its 67 facilities nationwide.

"CCA already keeps the data," says Friedmann, who adds that he never personally encountered sexual abuse while housed in a CCA prison. "They keep very detailed statistical data regarding incidents at all of their facilities, particularly sexual assault. They're performing a public function, and they're using public taxpayer dollars to do it. In a public prison, all of the data I'm requesting would be a matter of public record.

"But by contracting with private companies, our government agencies are basically contracting away the public's right to know what these companies are doing and how they're doing it. It's kind of counterintuitive, it's certainly not transparent, and it lacks accountability."

Currently, CCA releases only limited annual data on sexual-abuse incidents of the kind that have tarnished the private prison's reputation in the past 20 years. A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report uncovered that of 282 jails surveyed for instances of sexual victimization, the worst offender was CCA's Torrance County Detention Center in New Mexico. In 2009, Kentucky and Hawaii removed its female inmates from CCA's Otter Creek facility in Wheelwright, Ky.

Under Friedmann's proposal, which garnered the support of more than a dozen organizations (including the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence and the National Lawyers Guild), the scope of the data would be expanded and released biannually. Additionally, it would require CCA to disclose its efforts to address the problems beyond mere lip service.

Earlier this year, CCA attempted to block Friedmann, complaining to the Securities and Exchange Commission that his shareholder proposal consisted of little more than a personal attack on the company. The privatized-prison giant claimed that the proposal's tenets had essentially "already been substantially implemented by the company," as they have a "zero tolerance approach to prisoner sexual abuse."

But the SEC dismissed CCA's reasoning in a Feb. 10 letter, explaining that "it does not appear that Corrections Corporation of America's public disclosures compare favorably" with the guidelines of the proposal. "Accordingly," the letter stated, "we do not believe that Corrections Corporation of America may omit the proposal from its proxy materials."

Shortly before 10 a.m., Friedmann's chance had finally come. Excusing himself from the protest, he walked alone toward the building, a manila folder tucked under his arm. As other shareholders trickled in, he disappeared inside the edifice, and the glass-and-metal front doors closed behind him.

After less than hour of deliberation, he returned to the flock on Burton Hills Boulevard to inform them of the company's decision. It was as much of a shock as Capt. Renault "discovering" gambling in Rick's Café Américain.

"The resolution, surprisingly, failed to pass," Friedmann said, eliciting a round of laughter. "However, they did not mention the number of shareholders that voted for or against. In past shareholder meetings, and as a general rule, they ... indicate the percentage."

Per federal law, publicly traded companies are required to release shareholder vote information to the SEC within a few business days. The Scene obtained that information, revealing that the company's board of directors — which ranges from individuals like Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the eponymous Supreme Court Justice, and Charles Overby, a former Gannett Co. executive, to faceless Wall Street entities who simply phone in their ballots — voted 82 percent to 18 percent, overwhelmingly crushing the proposal. It was a firm vote against the transparency the company claims to favor in its self-congratulatory talking points.

"Efforts directed at eliminating prisoner sexual abuse are best served if implemented in coordination with industry-wide standards, best practices and regulations, and we feel that today's decision fully aligns CCA with comprehensive current and forthcoming efforts from organizations such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Department of Justice," wrote CCA spokesman Mike Machak in an email. "CCA complies fully with all government standards, which we believe provide a robust resource for anyone interested in this critical issue, We fully understand the importance of this and other human rights issues to our shareholders and those involved with our industry and are regularly assessing new ways to prevent abuse, as well as make our efforts more transparent."

For his part, Friedmann remains undeterred. He hints that he plans on reintroducing his resolution in the future. Until then, he offers a caveat of his own.

"It's hard to appeal to the consciences of people who don't have one," he says, "the kind of people who keep their conscience locked in a jar on their desk."