Blog of Rights

With Only Your Wits and an Empty Can of Pepper Spray to Protect You

By Claire Gardner, Community Engagement Associate, ACLU of Tennessee at 12:27pm

Listen, Trousdale County, Tennessee, I get it: When a big, powerful corporation comes to town and promises 400 new jobs, that's a huge deal. Especially if you're a small, rural community of hardworking people trying to make an honest living.

So I get the impulse to be excited by the deal your commissioners just signed with the Corrections Corporation of America to open a new prison. But before y'all start submitting applications, let me tell you a little about working for the Corrections Corporation of America.

CCA has a track record of cutting corners to save money – often at the expense of their employees.

Just ask Sergeant Leonard King.

Like the people of Trousdale County, Leonard King just wanted to make an honest living working at a CCA prison over in Ada County, Idaho. At first, Sgt. King thought he'd work as a guard for CCA until he retired. Now he and his former co-workers are suing the private prison giant.

Sgt. King contends that staff were regularly put in harms' way so CCA could cut expenses – down to giving guards radios with dead batteries and containers of pepper spray with nothing inside, instructing them to "just fake it" if things got dicey. Understaffing was such a problem that at night, one guard would be expected to manage up to 300 prisoners by himself.

King says he was violently assaulted five times, sustaining a concussion while being beaten by a prisoner who'd threatened to attack the next person he saw. King's supervisor allegedly knew about the threat but didn't warn King when he sent him in to deal with the situation. The supervisor also reportedly told another employee who wanted to join the escort team to just "wait until the assault happened, and then respond."

And Sgt. King's not the only one to have a terrible experience working for CCA.

Take the guards and nurses at the CCA prison in Ashtabula County, Ohio, where prisoner-on-staff assaults skyrocketed more than 300 percent between 2010, when it was a state-owned prison, and 2012, after CCA took the facility over from the state. No wonder state inspectors found that staff had low morale and high turnover. You would too, if you hadn't received training on "how to handle inmate confrontations" and were regularly forced to work 12-hour overtime shifts, as the state reported these employees were.

Or take Catlin Carithers. He was just 24 when he was beaten to death at the CCA prison where he worked in Adams County, Mississippi. Called back into work on his day off, Catlin spent his final hours trapped in the middle of a prisoner protest over poor food, medical care, and bad treatment that spiraled out of control. His family is suing CCA too, alleging that CCA "created a dangerous environment for the corrections officers by depriving inmates of basic needs and treating them inhumanely." More damning, his parents also allege CCA failed to warn Catlin that he was on a prisoner "hit list" the day he died.

All of these CCA employees deserved better, and the people of Trousdale County do too. You deserve to have safe, rewarding job opportunities. You don't deserve to work for a company that demands its employees work overtime under dangerous conditions and looks the other way when its workers walk, protected only by their wits and an empty can of pepper spray, into life-threatening situations.

For these reasons and many others, we need to take action against CCA. Join our campaign to hit CCA in their home state, and tell Tennessee Governor Haslam it's time for CCA to get out of Tennessee.

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