Private prison company is subject to Tenn. open-records law

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

NASHVILLE — A Nashville judge has ruled that private prison company Corrections Corporation of America is subject to Tennessee's open-records law.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman yesterday ordered CCA to provide information on settlements, judgments and complaints against the company to Alex Friedmann, who first requested the information in an April 2007 letter.

Joe Welborn, an attorney representing CCA, said the company would appeal the ruling.

Bonnyman said the overriding issue was whether the company performed a government function.

“The court finds that CCA is the equivalent of a government agency based first and foremost on the fact that the Tennessee constitution makes the maintenance of prisons and keeping of prisoners a state function,” the Davidson County Chancery Court judge said.

The ruling only applies to records of Tennessee prisons, not to federal prisons the company runs, or prisons in other states.

Attorney Andy Clarke said he represented Friedmann pro bono because he felt the Nashville-based prison company was deliberately trying to keep damaging information from becoming public.

“Information is knowledge,” he said. “They probably don't mind a $4,000 settlement for a broken back becoming public, but if someone gets killed, they probably do.”

Friedmann, a Tennessee resident and associate editor at the monthly magazine Prison Legal News, sued CCA after the company denied his records request, claiming it was not subject to the state's open-records law.

Among other things, he asked to see verdicts against the company and settlement agreements with prisoners.

The judge ruled that even confidential settlements were public records and had to be turned over as long as they had not been sealed by a court order.

Gene Policinski told the The Tennessean that it was too soon to say whether there would be national implications from the decision. As more government functions are turned over to private industry, the issue of what documents remain public can get muddied, said Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

“These issues will be litigated more and more,” Policinski told the newspaper. “Where does public responsibility and public visibility end, and a private institution's own records begin, when performing public functions and accepting public money?”