An editor at the Brattleboro-based Prison Legal News (PLN) is using his position as a Corrections Corporation of America shareholder to shine a light on a pervasive problem: sexual assault in America's private, for-profit prisons.
Alex Friedmann has brought a shareholder resolution to the board of CCA with the goal of forcing the nation's largest owner and operator of for-profit prisons to release statistics on how often sexual assaults occur within its walls and what efforts it's making to reduce their incidence.
CCA owns and operates more than 60 facilities in 19 states, with capacity of more than 85,000 beds, according to its website. The Vermont Department of Corrections currently houses 470 inmates in two out-of-state CCA prisons: the Lee Adjustment Center, in Beattyville, Kentucky; and the Florence Correctional Center, in Florence, Arizona.
Prior to joining PLN, Friedmann served 10 years of a 20-year sentence — including six years in a CCA prison in Clifton, Tennessee — for armed robbery, assault, attempt to commit murder and attempted aggravated robbery, all crimes he committed in the late 1980s and early '90s. He is also president of the Private Corrections Institute, a Tallahassee, Florida-based nonprofit watchdog group that opposes private prisons.
"So, I have an obvious bias in this regard," admits Friedmann, who is 42.
In the years since his release, Friedmann has worked to reform the private prison industry. Several years ago, Friedmann bought a single share of CCA stock so he could attend CCA shareholder meetings. Today, he owns 191 shares, enough to permit him to introduce his first shareholder initiative.
The proxy measure, which comes up for a vote on May 10 at CCA's shareholder meeting in Nashville, would require the company to issue twice-a-year reports on its efforts to reduce prisoner rape and sexual abuse within its facilities, and include statistical data on those incidents.
Reached by phone from Nashville, Tenn., this week, Friedmann emphasizes that he never personally experienced or witnessed rape while in prison, though he heard plenty of rumors and talk over the years. "It's one of those taboo topics in prison," he says. "You don’t sit around discussing how many people got raped the other night."
How common is rape and sexual abuse in public prisons versus private ones? According to Friedmann, the only study that compared the two found that private prisons actually have a lower incidence of sexual abuse than state prisons, but a higher incidence than federal prisons.
That said, other research indicates that sex crimes are a bigger problem in the private prison industry than is normally reported. As Friedmann explains, there are two types of data on the pervasiveness of sexual assault behind bars: surveys of inmates that ask whether they've been sexually assaulted and if so by whom, how often, etc. The second set of data is reported by state and federal correctional authorities themselves. As Friedmann points out, official stats on reported rapes that occur behind bars are similar to crime reports in free world. Obviously, not all crimes are reported to authorities, especially in prison.
Friedmann goes to explain that one 2008 U.S. Bureau of Justice report found that the highest incidence of sexual abuse nationally occurred in a private CCA prison: the Torrance County Correctional Facility, in Estancia, N.M., where the rate of sexual victimization was four times the average of the 282 jails the government surveyed. Friedmann's policy brief in support of his shareholder measure highlights several lawsuits brought against CCA for failure to address rape and sexual misconduct in its facilities.
"My resolution with CCA is simply to recognize that this is a problem in the industry, particularly the private prison industry, and to address it," Friedmann says.
For obvious reasons, Friedmann puts the likelihood of his resolution passing at "exceedingly slim." Although he'll introduce the motion at next month's shareholder meeting, the move will be largely pro forma, as most shareholders will have already voted beforehand. Based on his research, the vast majority of shareholders (78 percent) are large investment firms, institutional investors and public employee retirement funds. Friedmann says he's been contacting any CCA stockholders that own more than 200,000 shares in an effort to get them to vote yes on his measure.
How's he done so far? Generally, institutional investors don't reveal their stance on shareholder initiatives, Friedmann points out. In fact, companies with such large holdings typically don't even vote their own proxies but farm those decisions out to proxy-voting services. Friedmann says that only one company has agreed to a conference call with him to discuss his anti-rape measure with its analyst.
"Unfortunately, that company is not based in the United States," he laments, "which gives you an idea of the U.S corporate mindset when it comes to public policy issues like this. It's simply not on their radar. They just don’t care."
Indeed, the CCA board of directors attempted to block Friedmann's efforts by filing an objection with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But with the help of pro bono lawyers, Friedman fought the board and in February, got the SEC to rule in his favor. Still, the CCA board of directors has unanimously recommended that shareholders vote against this resolution. In its opposition statement, the board argues that it is already undertaking efforts to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual abuse, making the measure unnecessary.
"CCA takes a 'zero tolerance' approach to prisoner sexual abuse," the company writes in a four-page response to Friedmann's shareholder initiative. "Since the creation of proposed national standards to eliminate prison sexual assaults, CCA has taken a leadership position on this important public policy issue. Even though the proposed standards have not yet been mandated and remain under consideration by the Department of Justice, CCA has proactively adopted – and in some cases exceeded - many of the national PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) standards and best practices."
That said, Friedmann's measure has garnered support from more than a dozen national organizations, including the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, the National Organization for Women, the National Lawyers Guild and the Human Rights Defense Center.
Interestingly, Friedmann notes that CCA's stock has "gone through the roof recently," putting the value of his CCA holdings at more than $4000. He says he plans to donate any proceeds from the eventual sale of his stock to organizations that address human rights abuses behind bars.