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How a Former Prisoner Took Down a Big Shot from the Private Prison Industry (and Cheney Pal)

Gus Puryear had his judicial nomination scuttled by a former prisoner turned criminal justice advocate.

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Fighting the Good Fight

Friedmann formed an independent group to coordinate the opposition campaign, called Tennesseans Against Puryear. While that organization conducted most of the opposition efforts, Friedmann also participated in his capacities as PLN's associate editor and vice president of the Private Corrections Institute, at his own expense.

Tennesseans Against Puryear worked with several organizational allies, including the Alliance for Justice, a national association of left-leaning advocacy groups. The Alliance for Justice was one of the first organizations to sound an alarm over Puryear's nomination, saying he lacked "the fundamental commitment to transparency, integrity, honesty, and legal ethics required of those seeking a lifetime appointment to the federal courts."

Other organizations that signed on to the opposition campaign included the National Lawyers Guild; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Grassroots Leadership, a North Carolina-based civil rights organization; the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA); and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which opposes prison expansion as being against public policy.

AFSCME and the CCPOA joined mainly because they reject privatization, which is a threat to union jobs, and didn't want to see a pro-private prison advocate like Puryear on the federal bench.

Also, as noted previously, three national women's rights groups submitted letters of opposition to the Senate Judiciary Committee as a result of Puryear's membership in the Belle Meade Country Club.

Prior to Puryear's Feb. 12, 2008 hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Friedmann sent statements and proposed questions to the Committee members that addressed Puryear's conflicts of interest, lack of experience, bias against prisoner litigation, concealment of information from the public, and role in the Estelle Richardson case.

Not even Puryear's position as a deacon in the Presbyterian church was left unscathed, as Friedmann mentioned that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church had passed a resolution in 2003 condemning for-profit private prisons such as those operated by CCA.

To their credit, Committee members took note and grilled Puryear at his nomination hearing, using the documents and questions provided by Friedmann as a guide. One reporter described the proceedings as "testy." According to a spokesperson for Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, "During that hearing, a lot of red flags were raised."

Afterwards, the opposition campaign submitted a formal response to the Committee that identified inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Puryear's testimony. Senators Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Russ Feingold and Edward Kennedy sent written follow-up questions to Puryear. At least one senator sent a second round of questions.

On the home front, Friedmann wrote two editorials opposing Puryear's nomination that were published by the Tennessean. He worked closely with media contacts, issued press releases on new developments in the opposition campaign, and ran public notices in the Tennessean and Nashville Scene. During two trips to Washington D.C., Friedmann met with representatives of seven members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Leahy's staff.

Senator Leahy, as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, was a key part of the strategy to keep Puryear's nomination from going to the full Senate. In a small state like Vermont, citizens have extraordinary access to their congressional delegation. During the opposition campaign, PLN editor Paul Wright, who lives in Vermont, spoke a number of times with Senator Leahy's chief of staff and was able to mobilize several dozen voters -- including members of the local bar and the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild -- to express their concerns about Puryear's nomination. Those concerns were far from academic; more than 500 Vermont prisoners are housed at a CCA facility in Kentucky, where they have been mistreated.