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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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Predictably, upon questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Puryear expressed his view that lawsuits brought by prisoners "deserve a fair hearing," and that if confirmed he would "strive to be fair and impartial ... in all cases, including those brought by inmates." He claimed that his earlier comments only referred to frivolous lawsuits, prompting Senator Arlen Specter to ask what he meant by "frivolous," which Puryear was hard pressed to define.

To demonstrate he was not biased against prisoners, Puryear cited his position on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The Commission, formed as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (45 U.S.C. § 15601), is developing standards to reduce incidents of rape and sexual assault in correctional facilities. [Note: PLN has submitted formal comments on the Commission's draft standards].

However, when Friedmann called the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission he learned that Puryear had missed fully half -- four of eight -- of the Commission's public hearings. Puryear acknowledged his poor attendance record only after being questioned by the Judiciary Committee.

Puryear also tried to counter accusations of bias against jailhouse lawyers by describing a 1992 case in which he had represented Christopher Johnson, a Tennessee state prisoner. Puryear took the case to trial in federal court (his only federal jury trial), where he lost. Then, he said, "Mr. Johnson, who had since been released, wished to represent himself on appeal. I sought and was granted leave to cease representing Mr. Johnson."

That characterization was not entirely candid. After pulling the case file from the court's archives, Friedmann discovered that Johnson had asked to have Puryear removed from the case twice -- before trial because Puryear failed to raise issues in Johnson's supplemental complaint alleging retaliation, placement in segregation and being called a racial epithet by prison staff, and again after trial because Puryear had purportedly "failed to prepare for the trial and present all relevant evidence and proof."

The district court granted Johnson's second motion to dismiss counsel and denied Puryear's motion to withdraw as being moot. Thus, Puryear's account of his representation of Johnson, and withdrawal as counsel, was at best misleading.

Friedmann cited Puryear's disparaging comments about prisoner litigation, his poor attendance record at Commission hearings, and his position as CCA's general counsel in which he defends against prisoner lawsuits as evidence that Puryear would not be fair or objective when hearing prisoners' cases if confirmed as a federal judge.

The Public's Right to Know ... Be Damned

As a private company, CCA is not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act or state public records laws in most cases. Therefore, government agencies that contract with CCA, and members of the public, must rely on documents that CCA produces either voluntarily or pursuant to its contractual obligations.

This includes documents concerning security-related incidents at CCA prisons such as sexual assaults, riots, escapes and unnatural deaths, which CCA terms "zero tolerance events." The company tracks such data internally through its quality assurance division, which was placed under CCA's legal department -- and Puryear's oversight -- in 2005.

The opposition campaign raised this issue with the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that Puryear and CCA had withheld information from government agencies and members of the public, who had a right to know about problems in the company's prisons and jails.

As one example, following a hostage-taking at CCA's Bay County, Florida jail in 2004, which resulted in a prisoner and hostage being shot by a SWAT team member, CCA refused to release an after-action report. Puryear arranged to have a private law firm prepare the report, and a CCA attorney said it would never become a public record.