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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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When the Private Corrections Institute (PCI) requested a copy of the report, CCA claimed it had been "prepared by outside counsel in anticipation of litigation," and thus was exempt from disclosure. Yet when Puryear responded to questions from the Judiciary Committee regarding the Bay County after-action report, he denied there was a written report and said it had been delivered verbally.

In another case, staff at the CCA-run Hardeman Co. Correctional Facility in Tennessee failed to report a May 2007 incident in which the warden physically assaulted a prisoner. State prison officials learned of the abuse two months later after they were contacted by the prisoner's attorney. CCA staff had tried to cover-up the incident; the warden subsequently resigned, was prosecuted and pleaded guilty. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.10].

Due to CCA's secretive nature, it was difficult to obtain details about other cases where information about security-related incidents had been concealed or withheld. But then came an unexpected development from an unlikely source.

In July 2007, PCI was contacted by Ronald T. Jones, a former senior manager in CCA's quality assurance division who had recently resigned. PCI had filed an ethics complaint against Jones in 2000 after he was hired by CCA within two years of leaving his state job with Florida's Correctional Privatization Commission, a violation of state law. Nevertheless, he had no hard feelings. He did, however, have a conscience, and wanted to blow the whistle on CCA.

According to Jones, a longtime Republican, CCA kept two sets of quality assurance audit reports. "I would prepare one report with all of the audit findings and auditor comments in it for ‘internal purposes only' and a separate more generic report that contained only general information about audit results as a whole," he said in a written statement. The generic reports without the detailed audit results would be provided to government agencies.

Jones also stated, "When Mr. Puryear felt there was highly sensitive or potentially damaging information to CCA, I would then be directed to remove that information from an audit report." The unredacted, detailed audit reports were designated "attorney-client privileged," and Jones was "told by senior quality assurance department staff that Mr. Puryear wanted [that] language inserted into the detailed report to prevent that information from being accessible under Sunshine [public records] laws."

Jones further revealed that annual bonuses paid to CCA wardens and other company employees were based partly on the number of incidents reported at each facility. That supplied a financial incentive for CCA staff to underreport incidents -- particularly zero-tolerance events -- which in turn created a corporate culture of deception that undermined CCA's quality assurance data. According to an internal CCA newsletter, the practice of linking bonuses to a facility's audit score was discontinued in mid-2007.

PCI referred Jones to a reporter at TIME magazine, who broke the story in an online article on March 13, 2008. Citing information provided by Jones, the TIME article said CCA kept the unredacted quality assurance reports for in-house use only so as to "limit bad publicity, litigation or fines that could derail CCA's multimillion dollar contracts with federal, state or local agencies." Jones contended that Puryear's participation in this practice was unethical. The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper, ran a front-page article about the accusations leveled against CCA and Puryear on March 14, 2008.

CCA officials responded by quickly contacting their government contract partners and telling them Jones' allegations were completely false -- although the company acknowledged that "appropriate information gathered in the audits is separately provided to our legal department," and Puryear admitted that CCA "did not make our customers aware of these documents," referring to the detailed quality assurance reports kept for in-house use only.