Human Rights

Private Prison Litigator Gus Puryear's Rise to the Top

Part II of an investigative report on the unsolved homicide that haunts a Bush nominee for a U.S. District Court seat.
Editor's Note: In 2004, Estelle Richardson's lifeless and battered body was found on the floor of a Corrections Corporation 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 II of an AlterNet exclusive, two-part investigative feature by Silja J.A. Talvi. (Read Part I here)

Part II: Moving On Up: Puryear, CCA, and the GOP

Until very recently, Puryear has enjoyed an easy climb up the political and corporate ladder. It hasn't hurt that the 39-year-old Republican Party loyalist has always kept the right company, starting with the day that he was born.

Puryear's paternal lineage is flush with old money tied, in particular, to the Southern banking industry. (It's a tradition that Puryear has carried on by joining the board of the Nashville Bank & Trust Company.) Born in Atlanta, Puryear attended an exclusive Christian private school, Westminster. After high school graduation in 1986, Puryear received a full academic scholarship to Emory University, and then to the University of North Carolina School of Law. In 1993, freshly equipped with his J.D., Puryear landed a plum assignment as law clerk to Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, Fifth U.S. District Court of Appeals. (Hawkins was appointed to the bench in 1990, by President George H.W. Bush.)

In an odd twist of fate, clerking for Judge Barksdale brought Puryear close to the lives of prisoners, at least insofar as their legal paperwork. In an October 2005 feature in GC South magazine, "No more get out of jail free," Puryear noted that one-third of all the cases they dealt with were pro se prisoner cases: "In fact, when I got out of law school, I was appointed to represent an inmate in a Section 1983 civil rights action, and we took it to a jury trial," he told writer Greg Land, adding dryly, "We lost."

Land made the apt observation that Puryear's district court experience was "fitting foreshadowing for the young lawyer who would eventually make 'no settlements' a key corporate goal at CCA."

That case was to end up as one of only five federal cases Puryear has ever personally handled as a practicing attorney, only one of which went to trial, in addition to one trial in Tennessee state court in the 1990s. This, despite Puryear's three years as an associate attorney at Farris, Warfield & Kanaday (now Stites & Harbison), a law firm to which his grandfather had longstanding ties. Perhaps Puryear had a sense all along that he was destined to use his legal mind for a different purpose, say, for the glory of the GOP and the size of his pocketbook.

Puryear made the leap to GOP employment very quickly, serving as counsel from 1997-1998 for a legal team assembled by former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN), as part of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. The Committee was busy investigating a major campaign finance scandal; 22 people were eventually convicted for fraud or illegally funneling foreign money to the DNC's federal election coffers.

Puryear's work was duly noted. From 1998-2000, Puryear held the position of legislative director for Republican Senator Bill Frist, a former state deputy director for the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign. Frist, who served in Congress from 1995-2007, was also a Belle Meade Country Club member, although he (unlike Puryear) had the common sense to resign from the historically racially segregated organization before heading toward his political career.

Puryear's close friendship with beltway insider and Republican attorney/lobbyist powerhouse, Philip Perry, also yielded convenient connections to the Bush administration. When he was asked to help Perry's father-in-law prepare for high profile, televised debates, Puryear set about filling up the father-in-law's tricky brain with facts, statistics, zingers, and parrying tactics. The father-in-law and VP-to-be? Dick Cheney. The occasion? The 2000 and 2004 vice presidential debates.

Friends like these can come in handy when it comes time to search for nominees for a slate of empty federal court benches. With his connections to Frist, Thompson, Barksdale, Perry, and Cheney in place, Puryear has also had a knack for knowing when to write the requisite donation checks to GOP leaders: to date, he's donated at least $13,000 to state and federal Republican campaign committees since 2001, including $1,000 to Mitt Romney in 2007. When Puryear donates money, he seems to do so with a special patriotic flare: on September 11, 2003, he donated $2,000 to George W. Bush's re-election campaign to emphasize his loyalty to the War on Terrorism.

Puryear would hardly be the first person appointed to the bench despite overtly partisan political allegiances and/or paltry legal chops. There's really no question about either. Puryear's affiliation with the ultra-conservative echelons of the Republican Party has spanned the course of his entire career, and his connections in the party clearly run quite deep. Small surprise, then, when Sen. Frist rose to Puryear's defense in an April 13th opinion piece for The Tennessean about the mounting opposition to his confirmation. One could almost hear the tremolo in Frist's voice as he bemoaned his besieged former employee's plight: "The infusion of political posturing, fed by outside groups, into our nomination process means that nominees are sometimes subject to unfair attack …. The toll on nominees and their families cannot be underestimated. The confirmation process has become so brutal that people who want to serve the public no longer do so."

It's unlikely that Puryear's going to wilt away, no matter how vocal the opposition. After all, he's still got the right friends, wealth, and business connections. Most importantly, the people behind him have a lot at stake. If Puryear were to be confirmed, he would help cement a GOP/Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) stranglehold in the State of Tennessee. Most of these ducks are already in a row: both of Tennessee's U.S. Senate seats are controlled by CCA-supportive politicians, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (both of whom have received tens in thousands in donations from CCA's PAC, as well as company employees and their spouses), and former Senator Frist is rumored to be running for governor in the next election cycle.

The House that CCA Built

It's worth taking an even closer look at the ties that have made CCA the corporate entity that it is. CCA's press materials tout the company's expansive network of detention centers (and its subsidiary prison transport company, TransCor America), as "prison privatization at its best." The company's top brass have all enjoyed illustrious careers in high-ranking positions as state legislative aides, lobbyists, and influential legislators.

Some CCA officials held cushy jobs in governor's offices, while others came to CCA from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the U.S. Marshals, or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Chuck Kupferer, CCA's Senior Director of Federal Customer Relations for U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service, is a former L.A. cop who became a chief deputy in New Orleans, and then went onto be the chief inspector with the CIA's Counter Narcotics Center in Virginia. With annual earnings and compensation nearing $1.5 million, Richard Seiter is handsomely compensated as CCA's Chief Corrections Officer and Executive Vice President. Of all the major CCA figureheads, Seiter's background is the one most based in corrections. Seiter was formerly the Chief Operating Officer for Federal Prison Industries (also known as UNICOR, which is in the business of selling prisoner-made goods and services), as well as the warden of two federal prisons, and one-time director of the scandal-ridden Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

CCA board members are similarly loaded with connections to state and federal level offices and agencies, including Donna Alvarado, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the U.S. Department of Defense. Board member Anthony Grant was the Commissioner of Economic Community Development for Tennessee, while former Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), is perhaps best remembered as one of the Keating Five. (John McCain (R-AZ) was one of the lesser-implicated figures in the scandal.)

These days, CCA's financial horizon looks quite splendid, even if the conditions in which the company's "customers" are housed are far from it. With projected 2008 revenue of roughly $390 million, and 4,000-6,000 new beds in development, CCA can generally report good news back to its shareholders (NYSE: CXW) -- as it is anticipated to do in its May 6th, first-quarterly report. Although CCA is hardly the only player in the facility operating-and-owning aspect of the private corrections industry (e.g., GEO and Cornell Corrections), CCA is the undisputed leader of the pack. To be sure, corrections-related stocks are generally on the upswing because the demand for incarceration has far outstripped the ability of city, county, state, and particularly federal agencies to handle all of those shackled bodies. (Federal agencies already constitute over 40% of CCA's revenue base.) Between demand and the opportunity for profit, it's no wonder that private prison companies hold at least seven percent of the national prison population behind their walls.

In a recent article, "Lock in Some Dollars with Corrections Corporation of America," the stock advisory site,, makes no bones about the cold, hard facts: "Collectively, $44 billion was spent on corrections last year, a 127% increase over 1987 totals. In this same time period, spending on higher education increased at just 21% -- this is dire news to hear, we know, but we believe policies aiming to cut the massive amounts of dollars spent on corrections will take longer than expected. This means jail stocks will still be good investments over the next couple of years. The demographics at play suggest more crime is on its way, and no one's better positioned than CXW."

Never mind that overall crime rates haven't, actually, been going up, especially when it comes to serious and/or violent criminal offenses. Because CCA can't bank on actual crime statistics, they must rely to some extent on the culture of fear that feeds the American prison machine. When the Institute on Money in State Politics studied the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, they found that private prison companies, directors, executives and lobbyists gave no less than $3.3 million to candidates and state political parties across 44 states. In general, CCA and other private prison companies have favored giving money to states with the toughest sentencing laws, because those are the states that are most likely to generate the bodies for empty jail and prison beds. Those states are also the ones most likely to have passed "two-strikes" or "three-strikes" laws -- including CCA's home turf, Tennessee. And those laws, in turn, are based on cookie-cutter legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose corporate and "Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Task Force" members have come from the ranks of CCA and other private prison companies.

It's a twisted game of prison-and-politics, and CCA certainly knows how to play it. According to disclosures filed with the Senate's public records office, CCA spent nearly $2.5 million in 2007 (down from $3.4 million in 2005) to lobby Congress and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In particular, CCA sought to build support for immigration "reform" policies that would yield more arrests and deportations, and to build opposition against the Public Safety Act, which would outlaw private prisons, as well as the Private Prison Information Act, which would force private prisons to make public the same information that government-run detention facilities must provide.

In the meantime, CCA's PAC money keeps flowing, as well: in the past four months alone, the PAC has spent nearly $200,000, including $52,500 donated to federal candidates, of whom 80% are Republican.

But when Puryear was brought on board in 2001, CCA was saddled with debt, and company stock was in a tailspin. Puryear was hand picked by CCA President and Chief Executive Officer John Ferguson. Ferguson was determined to set the company on the right track. The former Commissioner of Finance for Tennessee, Ferguson was obviously up to the challenge -- actually, he exceeded expectations by leaps and bounds. Small wonder that his resulting financial reward has been of enormous magnitude. In FY 2007, Ferguson earned over $2.8 million in cash compensation, and holds over $28.5 million in unexercised stocks, by today's market value.

Puryear's position in the company therefore became one of utmost importance. His no-nonsense, "no-settlements" approach is still the right fit for a company besieged by lawsuits and scandals. As it was true then, it is now: CCA must do everything it can to prevent cases from going to trial because the accompanying press almost always negatively impacts stock prices, and jeopardizes the renewal or acquisition of local, state, and federal contracts. To keep shareholders (and company executives) happy, CCA needed to avoid coughing up too much money to settle even a small percentage of the hundreds of lawsuits biting at the heels of company at any given time. (In the interview with GC South magazine, Puryear offered that the number of claims and lawsuits facing CCA on any given day range from 700-1,000.) In another interview with Corporate Legal Times in 2004, Puryear quipped thusly: "Litigation is an outlet for inmates ... it's something they can do in their spare time."

Richardson, of course, had none of that spare time to speak of. But Puryear seemed to have handled her case, as most others, with the kind of diplomatic finesse upon which his reputation has been built.

Unlikely Friends and Foes

In the scope of things, Estelle Richardson's murder was hardly the biggest lawsuit or scandal that CCA ever faced. Indeed, if the Senate Judiciary Committee members had wanted to spotlight larger-scale scandals that took place during Puryear's tenure, they could have pointed to one of the biggest prison riots in recent memory, at the CCA-operated Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, Colorado. On July 20, 2004, just days after a mass interstate transfer of nearly 200 prisoners from Washington State, and despite numerous signs of impending trouble (including lack of food and grossly inadequate medical staffing), prisoners staged a full-scale riot that brought the facility to its knees.

In the ensuing hours, all of the prison's living units but one were taken over, burned, and destroyed. Unbelievably, there were only 33 uniformed guards on duty when the riot broke out, although the prison population stood at 1,122 inmates. Most of the staff fled their stations, as a post-riot incident report revealed, while those that stayed were waiting on word from CCA headquarters. Ill-trained in emergency containment and medical response, munitions and chemical weapons usage, the prison was nearly burned to the ground by the time that the outside law enforcement agencies moved in to stop the situation from escalating even further. All totaled, 13 staff and prisoners were assaulted, not including the hundreds of prisoners who were gassed, beaten, shot, and made to lie in excrement in the post-riot "containment" situation.

Those prisoners injured and abused post-riot, who had not participated in the violence and havoc to begin with, sued CCA in 2005 and 2006. According to a Trial Lawyers for Public Justice press release, "the punishment of bystanders included forcing tightly bound inmates to urinate and defecate in their own clothing; dragging handcuffed inmates from their cells face down through water filled with glass shards, blood, and raw sewage; shooting inmates who were lying down, or sitting or walking with their hands up; using tear gas on plaintiffs who were locked in their cells or were prone at gunpoint, waiting to be cuffed; withholding drinking water and medications; denying shower privileges and clean clothes for more than a week; and forcing inmates to strip and parade naked in front of female guards who snapped pictures and videotaped inmates bathing without a shower curtain."

These extreme, Abu Ghraib-like circumstances, testified to by hundreds of prisoners, were not enough to gain remedy, something that Puryear's legal team would have had a hand in. The U.S. District Court dismissed the complaint for "failure to exhaust administrative remedies," a common ruling in federal courts after the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The Senate Judiciary Committee could also have taken a look at conditions at the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, where immigrant adults and children are imprisoned in a medium-security correctional setting, and how the company's legal department worked with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to mitigate the damage brought about by a (now settled) ACLU lawsuit on behalf of the detainees. Also of concern could have been how CCA's legal team dealt with the knowledge that one of their own guards, who raped a female detainee at that facility, went without prosecution despite ample evidence of the crime.

Puryear's nomination is opposed by a wide variety of organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild, AFSCME, Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, and the Private Corrections Institute (PCI). In March, Women's Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund president Gloria Allred issued her own statement against Puryear's confirmation, after it was revealed that he is a member of the Belle Meade Country Club. Puryear's nomination is supported, on the other hand, by the likes of Frist, Thompson, Corker and Alexander, as well as Thurgood Marshall, Jr., something touted by his allies as evidence of Puryear's non-racism. All of that would sound good indeed, were it not for the fact that Marshall, Jr., is actually on the board of CCA.

Why would the Senate Judiciary Committee focus on Richardson's case, then? The answer comes down to two words: Alex Friedmann. The organizer of the grassroots effort to derail Puryear's nomination for the U.S. District Court, Tennesseans Against Puryear, Friedmann is also a former CCA prisoner, a bonafide genius of a jailhouse lawyer, and vice president of PCI.

Friedmann speaks with a steady pace, in a nearly expressionless monotone, but the words he chooses are carefully placed and to the point: "People should be concerned about this nomination as a matter of justice," he explains. "We shouldn't make the mistake and think that U.S. District Court nominations are not something to be worked up about. In fact, these judges are among the most powerful in the country. They make serious, precedent-setting, and life-and-death decisions on a regular basis."

It was because of his efforts that the Senate Judiciary Committee first came across information about Richardson's case, and it was primarily because of his efforts that Puryear's relative lack of experience as a trial lawyer in any court system caught the committee's notice. (And then there is that pesky bit about Puryear's membership in the Belle Meade Country Club; Puryear can thank Friedmann for that, as well.)

Because of Friedmann's efforts, much of the opposition to Puryear's appointment has centered on the question of whether the top corporate lawyer could possibly be impartial enough to serve as a U.S. District Court judge in the same district where CCA headquarters are located. Hundreds of lawsuits related to CCA have been filed in that court, but Puryear insists that this would not be a problem: he has promised, in advance, that he would recuse himself from any such lawsuits for a period of five years.

Friedmann says that he didn't actually set out to highlight Richardson's case, because he didn't anticipate that the committee members would even bring their attention to it. Moreover, he didn't anticipate that Puryear would so blatantly downplay the very facts and circumstances related to Richardson's murder. Nor did he expect that the committee would fire off a series of challenges to Puryear's February testimony, or that Puryear would rally his defense troops in such a way that one of the primary attorneys who sued CCA on behalf of Richardson's family would wind up on his side.

After it became evident that Puryear's original testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hadn't gone particularly well, a series of behind-the-scene moves appear to have been set into motion. That process seems to have accelerated after Dr. Bruce Levy, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Tennessee, got wind of Puryear's assertions. Dr. Levy took particular exception to Puryear's suggestion that Richardson's broken ribs were quite possibly the result of CPR, and that it was also quite possible that she hadn't been murdered, after all. Because Dr. Levy had personally conducted the autopsy on Richardson, he took it upon himself to fire off an unusually opinionated letter. "The committee should be very concerned about a nominee for federal judge who is less than truthful when answering questions from the [committee]," he wrote on February 21, 2008, emphasizing that there was no question that Richardson had, indeed, been brutally beaten while still alive -- and that her injuries led directly to her death.

Then, in quick succession, these events transpired:

  • On February 22, David Randolph Smith, lawyer for the Richardson family and Joseph Welborn, representing CCA, files a joint motion in U.S. District Court (Middle District of Tennessee) to unseal the transcript of the settlement hearing re: Richardson's minor children. The attorneys argue that the transcript would not violate the confidentiality component of the agreement because that portion didn't contain the actual terms of the settlement (or the monetary amount). Judge Campbell grants the motion, although none of the Richardson family members are notified that the action is taking place;

  • That transcript, however, did make clear the actual dollar amount of CCA's gross settlement: $2 million dollars, of which 40% went to various plaintiffs' attorneys. Richardson family attorney Smith received $192,000;

  • On February 25, Smith, freed from certain confidentiality concerns, sends an unexpected letter of support for Puryear to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the letter, he agrees that Richardson could have died for any number of reasons and that her death was not necessarily a murder at all;

  • On February 26, James Sanders, a Tennessee attorney with Neal & Harwell, issues a three-page letter of support, praising Puryear's skills and talents. Also freed from confidentiality concerns, Sanders, who helped to represent CCA in the Richardson case, addresses her death specifically: "I can tell you that the facts, particularly the medical evidence, showed conclusively that Ms. Richardson's death was not caused by correctional officers extracting Ms. Richardson from a cell in short, there is no credible evidence to support Dr. Levy's homicide conclusion, other than the head injury and the death itself."

Ah, yes, just those bothersome little details. The head injury and the death itself.

In his written response to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, Puryear tried to show his sympathetic side: "I regret that this uncertainty leaves a cloud over CCA; however, I know that the far greater tragedy is that the children of Estelle Richardson will likely never know exactly why their mother died."

But if Richardson herself could speak from her grave, she would be likely to say that the far greater tragedy is this: That a man like Puryear would have the sheer audacity to try to sweep her murder under the rug, yet again.

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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.