Human Rights

Meet Gus Puryear: Bush's Latest Villainous Nominee for a Lifetime Judgeship

The unsolved murder of Estelle Richardson in her prison cell haunts the nation's top private prison litigator as he vies for a judgeship.
Editor's Note: In 2004, Estelle Richardson's lifeless and battered body was found on the floor of a Corrections Corp. of America prison cell. Four years later, that unsolved homicide has come back to haunt Republican stalwart "Gus" Puryear, the nation's top private prison litigator and Bush nominee for U.S. District Court. This is Part I of an AlterNet exclusive, two-part investigative feature by Silja J.A. Talvi.

Part 1: Mr. Puryear, meet Ms. Richardson

It's hard to say what Estelle Ann Richardson would have thought if she would have had the chance to meet the man who authorized a hefty settlement check for her children.

Maybe she would have noticed that he moved in the world like someone who was used to things going his way, that he had a lot of money, or that he looked a lot younger and more relaxed than most of his corporate peers. It's hard to say, because she never had the chance to be introduced to the harmless-enough looking man possessed of a rather ostentatious name: Gustavus Adolphus Puryear IV.

The 39-year-old lawyer, awaiting a lifetime appointment as a judge in U.S. District Court, prefers to be called "Gus."

By all accounts, Gus is a charismatic, outgoing guy who likes to spend time with his family. He volunteers as a deacon in the Presbyterian Church and serves as a board member of the Exchange Club of Nashville, Tenn., where one of his responsibilities is to organize the annual Antiques and Garden Show. From a corporate standpoint, Puryear has excelled in his job as general counsel for Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the nation's largest and most influential private prison company. Under his direction, CCA's in-house attorneys work with a stable of contracted law firms to handle corporate legal matters of all kinds, not the least of which are the hundreds of claims and lawsuits filed against the company at any given time. A smart, enthusiastic GOP stalwart, Puryear is the kind of guy the party wants around. It doesn't hurt that he's also very, very rich: Between his bank account, assets and unexercised CCA shares, he's worth about $13 million, give or take a few thousand.

On the other hand, Richardson, a low-income, African American mother of two, moved through a world quite removed from that of the upper-echelon neighborhoods, schools and workplaces that afford Puryear his comfort zone. It's unlikely that the two would have ever met under even the most random of circumstances. The exclusive, members-only Belle Meade Country Club to which Puryear belongs, for instance, wouldn't have been the kind of place Richardson would have set foot in, particularly considering that African Americans weren't even allowed to join until 1994. (To this day, the only black member lives out of state. To boot, none of the women who have been admitted to the club, called "lady members," hold voting privileges.)

Belle Meade country clubbers probably raised a glass to toast Puryear when President Bush nominated him to sit on the federal bench in the Middle District of Tennessee. Yet, instead of breezing through what should have been an easy, perfunctory hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past February, Puryear was confronted with a series of uncomfortable questions about his legal and professional qualifications for the bench.

Nothing about Puryear's hobnobbing, rapid ascent to the status of a GOP darling suggested the emergence of an ad-hoc, grassroots movement to derail his nomination, much less the methodical persistence of a former CCA prisoner-turned-jailhouse lawyer hell bent on exposing the judicial candidate's affiliations, biases, and lack of courtroom experience. What Richardson's story has to do with all of this isn't obvious on the face of it, but the connection between the two has bubbled to the surface amidst a strange series of post-nomination twists and turns that no one, including Puryear, could have seen coming.

A mysterious homicide

On July 5, 2004, Richardson's lifeless, 34-year-old body was found slumped on the floor of an isolation cell in a Corrections Corp. of America (CCA)-operated detention facility in Nashville. An autopsy revealed that she died as a result of massive blunt force injuries to the head, resulting in a cracked skull. Richardson also had four broken ribs and serious internal organ injuries. Dr. Bruce Levy, Tennessee's chief medical examiner, ruled that Richardson's death was a homicide. His autopsy revealed a set of injuries that were consistent with a "deceleration injury," meaning that her head and body slammed simultaneously toward a hard surface, such as a wall or a floor.

In an interview with the Tennessean in September 2004, Dr. Levy emphasized that Richardson's injuries could not have been the result of a fall or suicide. Richardson, as he pointed out, was in a highly restricted segregation unit, which allowed no freedom of movement outside of her small, one-woman cell, much less contact with other prisoners. "It's a restricted area," he said. "There's a limit to what you can do. If she had fallen from a high window or if she had been hit by a car, I would expect to see these types of injuries."

Richardson was murdered in the notoriously overcrowded and understaffed CCA-run Metro Detention Facility (MDF). Previously known as the Metro Davidson County Detention Facility, MDF serves as a multipurpose role as a pretrial detention facility, a jail for misdemeanant offenders and, under a $17 million annual contract with the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC), a medium-security prison for convicted felons serving one- to six-year sentences. Overseeing the entire operation is Sheriff Daron Hall, a former prison administrator for a CCA-run prison in Brisbane, Australia.

While Richardson was locked up at MDF, the prison still held men and women alike in grossly overcrowded conditions. (A few months after her death, women were moved into a separate facility.) Two years before Richardson's death, a 12-year period of federal court supervision related to overcrowding had finally been lifted, but it would have been hard for anyone to argue that conditions had improved to any meaningful extent. Operated by CCA since 1992, MDF was designed to accommodate fewer than 900 people. MDF's population now surpasses 1,300 inmates.

Chronic overcrowding and understaffing in private or public detention facilities has inevitable consequences, ranging from the spread of contagious diseases to an increase in sexual and physical violence. At MDF, in just a three-and-a-half year period (2000-2004), ten prisoners died in custody. Eight of those were deemed "natural" deaths, although specific details on these kinds of incidents are difficult to suss out, especially because the TDOC does not collect any incident reports or statistics from MDF. The state prison system uses the strange rationale that these inmates are housed in a county jail run by an outside contractor and are therefore not subject to the same kind of reporting requirements.

With 70,000 juveniles and adults in its custody in 65 detention facilities nationwide, CCA contracts with all three federal corrections agencies, nearly half of all states, and more than a dozen municipalities. Representing the fifth-largest prison system in the country, CCA is the nation's largest private prison corporation and, as such, the publicly traded company is directly accountable to its shareholders, not to taxpaying citizens. Although the company is expected to comply with federal and state laws, and provide contract-specific reports to governmental agencies, there can be long delays before an agency (much less the public) receives word of in-detention suicides, violence, disease epidemics, employee sexual harassment complaints -- even prison escapes and riots.

In March, a former CCA employee, Ronald Jones, went public with his assertion that Puryear directly told him and other staff in the quality assurance department to create two audit reports relating to serious incidents at their detention facilities, such as riots, escapes and "unnatural" deaths. According to Jones, one of the audit reports was intended for clients, board members and shareholders, while the other was kept secret as an internal company document. CCA responded by calling his assertions inaccurate and those of an employee bent on retaliation for a pending termination: "If our interest was in under-reporting or not finding quality issues, we simply would not have created this department or its programs in the first place," CCA spokesperson Louise Grant told the Tennessean.

Richardson's death occurred in 2004, one year before Puryear subsumed quality assurance under the legal department and instituted the policy. As such, Richardson's murder might have generated little media interest were it not for the fact that she died during three weeks in solitary confinement, and was allowed out of her cell only one hour a day for either closely supervised "recreation" time or a brief opportunity to bathe in a caged shower under guard supervision.

In search of a better life

In 1999, Richardson headed down to Tennessee with her young children in tow. Diane Buie, her older sister, says that Richardson had grown tired of stagnating in her hometown. Although she had skills as both a medical technician and an interior decorator, Richardson was struggling financially, working a dead-end job as a telemarketer. She had decided to go after the necessary training to become a surgical assistant, Buie explained, because she wanted to provide a better life for her children.

The interstate move in 1999 didn't prove to be a fortuitous one. Richardson missed her sister and mother back home, and she was having real trouble making ends meet. Somewhere along the way, Richardson fell in with a crowd of small-scale hustlers who sold prescription drugs on the black market. At first, she helped out with obtaining the drugs sold to habitual pill poppers. Later, she started to sample the goods and developed a habit of her own, resulting in a March 2002 arrest when she tried to acquire painkillers with a forged prescription. Her children were with her at the pharmacy, and so in addition to charges of illegal drug possession, forgery and theft, the D.A.'s office added a charge of attempted child neglect.

Richardson pled guilty in September 2002 and was handed a suspended six-year sentence, as long as she complied with the terms of her parole. Like so many others struggling in the grip of both addiction and poverty, Richardson tried to hold everything together for a while, but eventually fell back into drug use. In November 2003, she failed urine analysis by testing positive for marijuana and cocaine; her probation officer issued an arrest warrant when Richardson didn't turn herself in. Busted for food stamp fraud in March 2004, Richardson was sent to MDF as a pretrial detainee. It wasn't until April 23, 2004, that a judge decided to revoke her probation and sentence her to a two-year prison term.

Buie was in regular contact with her younger sister by phone. She says that they were able to keep each other strong by focusing on Richardson's post-release plan of returning to Michigan to be reunited with her children, who had since moved back to Lansing. "I was going to help her find a nice place and buy new furniture for her," Buie explains.

It was going to be the end of a bad chapter in Richardson's life and the beginning of a new day.

Unbeknownst to Buie, Richardson hadn't been at MDF for long before CCA staff identified her as a "special needs" inmate. According to information that CCA shared with the press after a $60 million lawsuit was filed on behalf of Richardson's minor children, Richardson had gotten into three fights since she had been imprisoned, and that she required psychotropic medication. To be more specific, CCA noted that she had been classified "mentally deficient and psychologically impaired," something that the company's legal defense team, directed by Puryear, would later make a point of great emphasis. While CCA spokespersons seemed to have no problem letting out the information about Richardson's special classification and her need for medication, they claimed the imperative to protect the confidentiality of medical records as the reason why they couldn't provide more detail about what kind of care Richardson actually received and when, if at all, a mental disorder had been diagnosed.

Whether Richardson was actually mentally ill or "deficient" cannot be conclusively established. Some family members seemed eager to allow the lawsuit against CCA to highlight this alleged mental deficiency as an indication of her vulnerability. Buie and her mother, Estella, reject it altogether, and see it as yet another attempt by CCA to point the finger at Richardson's allegedly erratic behavior instead of the violence inflicted by their prison guards. To boot, Richardson's probation officer said that she had never seen evidence of any kind of mental deficiency.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that Richardson had developed psychological problems that weren't as obvious until she got to prison. Understandably, the experience of being separated from her children, trying to recover from drug addiction without any kind of treatment incarceration, and being in prison for the first time in her life, would compromise her mental health.

Whatever the underlying factors, CCA staff made the decision to put her in a segregated, "lockdown" area of the prison reserved for the ill-defined "special needs" population, and/or for those who had been deemed too disruptive for the general population.

The last days

What we are able to piece together about these last few weeks of Richardson's life are the products of a police and prosecutor's investigation, copies of MDF/CCA prison logs in evidence, the public statements of one prison guard, in-detention videotape of physically violent encounters, and sworn affidavits from four women who were also locked up in administrative segregation.

Together, they point toward a brutal end to Richardson's life. As the plaintiffs in Vilella v. CCA asserted: "CCA employees routinely and systematically unconstitutionally used excessive force and caused injuries to Estelle Richardson." Most significantly, the evidence gathered by the plaintiff's investigation reveal circumstances leading to her death radically different from the explanations that Puryear has tried to put forth:

  • On April 26, 2004, a CCA guard pepper-sprayed Richardson while she was in the "shower cage" of the segregation unit, something captured by the automatic video cameras mounted throughout the unit, according to the lawsuit. (Buie attests to the existence of the videotape, which was entered into evidence and cited in the lawsuit. She still possesses transcripts of this and later altercations.) The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, David Randolph Smith, notes in the Second Amended Complaint to Vilella v. CCA that Richardson that had been pepper-sprayed for not "putting on her pants following the shower quickly enough to suit the officer." Richardson was then cuffed and placed in leg irons, placed face down on the floor. During the incident, one or more officers put their body weight on Richardson's back.

  • On or about June 27, 2004, guards notified medical personnel that Richardson had "blood on her head." The nurse who examined her in the early morning hours of June 28 noted that Richardson had "blood oozing from [left] ear," gave her Tylenol, and made an urgent doctor's referral for an appointment later that day. There is no record she was subsequently seen by a physician.

  • On June 29, 2004, CCA Capt. Hambrick recorded Richardson's pleas for medical attention in the unit log: "Can you get the nurse down here? I am hurting, and if you don't get the nurse down here, I am going to die." Other prisoners in the isolation unit later attested to Richardson's attempts to stop constant, untreated ear bleeding with sanitary napkins or tampons. Hambrick reported that she notified medical personnel. There is no record of a follow-up examination by a nurse or physician. According to the complaint, these observed injuries were "the result of the use of excessive force by [unidentified CCA guards]" and a physician's order on July 2 was ignored. When CCA was asked to validate whether Richardson was seen (or not), the company cited the need to protect medical confidentiality.

  • On July 2, 2004, four prisoners in the segregation unit offered similar accounts of another incident in Shower Cage 3. According to their affidavits, CCA guard Shirley Foster assaulted Richardson with "excessive force." Richardson screamed, and there was "blood all over the shower cage," said prisoner Cameron James. Another noted that the guard pushed Richardson so hard that she fell and "busted her mouth." One prisoner, who kept her own daily calendar, had written an entry that day: "Foster slamed [sic] Estelle in shower Fri."

From that point forward, there are numerous and consistent prisoner accounts of Richardson's blood stains on her sheets, of nonstop bleeding from her ear, and of disregard by prison guards for her well-being. It is particularly notable that these prisoners were willing to come forward and provide affidavits despite their fears of retaliation. Indeed, it is possible, although not provable, that retaliation did take place, after all. This past January, 36-year-old Gerald Townsend died from internal bleeding at the MDF after Ronnie Sullivan, 22, attacked him for an unknown reason. Townsend was serving a sentence for nonviolent burglary and vehicle theft, while Sullivan had been convicted for an aggravated assault. As it turned out, Gerald was the brother of Judy Townsend, one of the four women who were willing to sign affidavits regarding the assault on Richardson.

Then, on July 4, 2004, Richardson was to have her last, physical encounter with CCA guards. According to information gathered from the guards and prisoners in the unit, Senior Officer Keith Andre Hendricks told Richardson to get her "nasty ass up and clean [your] room," referring to bloodied sanitary napkins and other debris in her cell. When she did not respond, he entered the cell with Officer Joshua Shockman, with Officer Jeremy Neese observing.

According to the investigation, Hendricks pulled her off the cell bed and threw her to the ground. James, one of the prisoners, recalled that he kicked Richardson [while she was face down," with his knee in her back. Another prisoner in the unit, Ruby Champlin, swore that she heard Richardson's head hit the floor, before Hendricks sprayed her with mace. In her diary from that time, prisoner Tracey Alexander recorded that all three officers beat Richardson after she was maced.

Early the next morning, at 5:37 a.m., a call to 911 came in from MDF. A CCA supervisor alerted the 911 operator that a "female inmate was on the floor and needed medical assistance." Paramedics arrived and found her unresponsive at 6:00 a.m. Richardson was pronounced dead at Southern Hills Medical Center.

Police conducting the murder investigation shortly after Richardson's death asked to see the videotape footage, which would have been recorded by the constantly running video camera in the unit. According to the CCA guards, the video camera somehow malfunctioned during this incident. Upon examination, the police investigators noted that there appeared to be nothing wrong with the camera.

Two of the four CCA guards were working double shifts because of staffing shortages at MDF. Three of the four were young, relatively new employees: Schockman, 23; Wood, 26; and Ness, 24. Only Keith Andre Hendricks, 35, was a senior prison guard, with four years of experience. Neese had only been on the job for four months. Shockman, who shared a residence with Neese, had been on the job for a little over a year, coming to CCA from a background as a boxing instructor and club bouncer with extensive experience in various martial arts.

It is very unlikely that the three younger guards had been receiving sufficient training to help them understand (or manage) the psychological stressors of working in a lockdown unit, in which prisoners are likely to exhibit various states of distress, anger, and/or serious psychiatric problems. Even experienced correctional officers tend to avoid working in these prisons-within-a-prison, in these increasingly prevalent 23-hour lockdown units known as "Administrative Segregation," "Security Housing Units (SHU)," Intensive Management Units (IMU)," "Special Management Units (SMU)" or what MDF refers to as "Admin Max."

With little else to do but sit and stew in stripped-down cells for days, weeks, months (or even years on end), many prisoners begin to lose touch with reality altogether, which is only exacerbated by the absence of natural light, human touch, limited or nonexistent reading materials or phone privileges. Hallucination, paranoia, aggression, self-mutilation and suicidal ideation are among the more common by-products of this form of isolation, which Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Stuart Grassian first identified and entitled the "SHU syndrome" in the 1980s.

As such, it's entirely possible that Richardson was mad at the prison for putting her in a unit like this one, and it's also quite possible that her first experience dealing with this kind of deprivation-oriented punitive confinement led her to act disruptively. Based on the incident the day before she was found dead in her cell, it is just as likely that she could have been responding sluggishly or erratically. The latter scenario is even more likely in the wake of autopsy and toxicological reports that revealed Richardson had not only suffered severe physical trauma, but that she had died with extremely high doses of psychiatric medicines in her system. The levels of Paxil and Doxepin found in her body were extremely high, according to post-mortem toxicological analysis by a Vanderbilt University clinical pharmacist; Richardson would have likely been behaving abnormally.

There's also the possibility that Richardson could have incurred the wrath of these guards because she persisted in asking for help for pain and bleeding. No matter what, Richardson would have been very weak, which begs the question: Why would it take four healthy adult males to perform a forcible cell extraction with the use of a chemical agent?

By definition, cell extractions in jails and prisons are very physical: Armed with some kind of chemical agent, electrified or nonelectrified shields, riot gear, batons, and/or stun guns, any number of guards rush into a prisoner's cell to subdue him/her as quickly as possible, to get that person down to the ground, and to hogtie (or otherwise restrain) that person. According to most jail/prison guidelines, cell extractions are only to be committed as a matter of last resort (especially in relation to the safety of the individual or other prisoners and staff), usually with the presence of medical staff, and must be videotaped from start to finish.

The commonplace mandate for cell extractions to be videotaped isn't hard to deduce: People get hurt. Considering the force with which prisoners are taken down, injuries sustained by prisoners related to cell extractions are more common than not, whether in the form of lacerations, broken teeth or more serious bodily harm. Without videotaped evidence, prisoners can sue on grounds of cruel and unusual punishment for short-term injuries or permanent disabilities sustained.

Without videotaped evidence, it was the word of those four prisoners and the opinion of the state's top medical examiner, who conducted the autopsy that Richardson died as a result of one or more serious assaults inflicted by CCA guards -- the only people who could have possibly had physical contact with Richardson for nearly three weeks on end.

Handling the damage

It took one year and three months for the four male guards to be charged with reckless homicide. (The female guard was not charged.) During that time period, all four guards were on paid administrative leave. After they were arrested, each posted bail and were quickly released from custody. While the prosecution moved forward, the Richardson family filed the $60 million lawsuit against CCA for being responsible for her murder by failing to provide adequate training and supervision of its guards.

Under Puryear's direction, a bevy of outside lawyers was already hard at work so as to minimize the damage to CCA. Medical experts were brought in to challenge chief medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy's original autopsy conclusions about the injuries indicating that she had been murdered, who reported that her fatal injuries were several days old and thus could have been self-inflicted or caused by earlier fights with prisoners. CCA's hired pathologist, Dr. William McCormick, went so far as to postulate that the "cause of the rib and liver injuries is almost certainly the resuscitative attempts made on Ms. Richardson."

In the process, Puryear and his legal team, while emphasizing their empathy for the family's "tragic loss" and their desire to comply with the investigation, alleged that her death could have been the result of earlier injuries sustained from fights with other prisoners, a seizure or a self-inflicted injury. "My understanding of the medical experts' opinions is that this raises the possibility that Ms. Richardson could have unintentionally struck her own head against an object or concrete floor (as in the case of a seizure or fall)," Puryear wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

CCA's interpretation of the injuries leading to Richardson's death and a lack of videotaped evidence, provided the necessary level of doubt to help Puryear lessen the PR and financial damage to CCA. Puryear's legal strategy worked. His timing was good: Not only had the medical findings cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding Richardson's death -- something that would making a court victory much harder to obtain -- but severe infighting between economically struggling family members had worn them down. Buie's mother lost custody of Richardson's children. As a result, they were shut out of the lawsuit, although the two of them had always been in the children's lives (and had assumed the primary responsibility of raising the kids when Richardson left for Tennessee), Buie and her mother aren't related to Richardson by blood; they were her mother and sister by adoption.

On February 22, 2006, Puryear personally represented CCA in the final mediation between the company and Richardson's family members. CCA settled with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed sum after plaintiffs dropped all civil actions against the four guards. Citing lack of definitive proof that the four guards caused her death, the Davidson County D.A.'s office dropped all charges against them, while acknowledging that she had, indeed, been killed. Richardson's murder remains unsolved to this day. A story like this isn't particularly unusual within the American prison system. It's not unusual for correctional employees accused of abuses behind prison walls to have charges dropped once enough time has passed -- that is, if charges got filed in the first place. It's certainly not unusual for public and private prison systems to settle lawsuits away from the public eye, reassured by the knowledge that strict nondisclosure clauses can keep aggrieved parties from speaking out.

It's not unusual that Richardson entered the CCA jail as a nonviolent offender with a drug problem, or that she was abused in the confines of an out-of-sight segregation unit. What is unusual is that a woman with so little power in her day-to-day life, particularly in the eyes of the people who arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned her, would heavily influence Puryear's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past February. Much of the reason why Richardson's murder popped back up to haunt Puryear's appointment as a federal court judge is attributable to a former CCA prisoner, Alex Friedmann. It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that Puryear couldn't possibly have seen Friedmann's agitation against his confirmation coming his way. And he certainly couldn't have expected that Estelle Richardson's unsolved murder didn't just go away with a few handshakes, a confidentiality agreement, and a $2 million settlement check.

In Part 2: Puryear battles his opposition with a few unlikely allies, including the lead attorney on the lawsuit against CCA, Thurgood Marshall, Jr., U.S. senators, and bipartisan Tennessee attorneys. What most of them have in common is the company that Puryear has spent over a half-decade defending, the GOP, and a bunch of well-placed campaign donations.

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Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.