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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.

On June 13, 2007, former President Bush nominated Gustavus A. Puryear IV, 40, for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. While you've likely never heard of Gustavus Puryear, you may be familiar with the company he works for: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest for-profit prison firm. CCA is conveniently located in the Middle District of Tennessee and Puryear serves as the company's general counsel -- its top attorney.

Puryear's judicial nomination did not go unnoticed; it drew the attention of a former CCA prisoner turned criminal justice advocate who opposes private prisons. By conducting extensive research, securing widespread media attention, contacting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and recruiting organizational allies, he coordinated an opposition campaign that managed to stall -- and ultimately scuttle -- Puryear's nomination.

Further, the ex-CCA prisoner who took down CCA's general counsel, denying him a federal judgeship in a humiliating defeat, happens to be employed by Prison Legal News.

The Man Who Would Be Judge

So who exactly is Gustavus "Gus" Puryear? Born into a wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia, Puryear graduated with a B.A. from Emory University in 1990 and received a J.D. degree with honors from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1993. He excelled in debate, placing third in a national debate tournament while in college.

Puryear clerked for a year for Judge Rhesa H. Barksdale on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit before settling down in Nashville, Tennessee. There he landed a position with the law firm of Farris, Warfield & Kanaday (now Stites & Harbison), where his family had longstanding connections.

Following three years as a corporate lawyer, Puryear turned to politics. He served as counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Affairs under former Senator Fred Thompson, then from 1998 to 2000 was the legislative director for former Senator Bill Frist.

In what must have been a highlight of his political career, Puryear helped prepare former Vice President Dick Cheney for the election debates in 2000, and again in 2004.

Upon his return to Nashville he was introduced to John Ferguson, CCA's CEO. Puryear joined CCA as the firm's general counsel in January 2001, where he oversees all of the private prison company's litigation.

Puryear serves on the board of Nashville Bank & Trust, and is a Commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. He's a member of the prestigious Belle Meade Country Club and a deacon in the Presbyterian Church.

With a reputation for being extremely intelligent, charismatic and genteel, Puryear appeared to be a perfect candidate for a federal judgeship under the Bush administration. Indeed, he said the nomination was "like a dream come true."

And in the Other Corner ...

Approximately one year before Puryear joined CCA as the company's top lawyer, Alex Friedmann was released from the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections (TDOC). He had served ten years in state prisons and county jails on convictions for armed robbery, assault with attempt to commit murder and attempted aggravated robbery.

Six of those years, from 1992 to 1998, were spent at the CCA-operated South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tennessee. While at South Central, Friedmann was subjected to retaliatory cell searches, disciplinary charges and transfers due to his efforts to "degrade CCA with negative articles" and "create and disseminate information concerning negative incidents experienced by CCA," according to records produced by prison staff.

At one point CCA transferred him to a facility in the extreme northwest corner of the state, a decision that was overturned by the TDOC on appeal. CCA also refused to let him receive an article in The Nation that was critical of prison privatization, in which he was quoted. That blatant censorship was likewise overruled by TDOC officials. [See: PLN, June 1998, p.16]. During this period he became a contributing writer for PLN.