Private prison firm drops efforts to keep Nashville contract

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A private prison company abruptly dropped efforts to keep running a jail in Nashville, saying it won't be used as a “punching bag" as city officials take steps to end the agreement on their own.

Damon Hininger, CEO of Tennessee-based CoreCivic, informed Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall in a letter Monday that the company will provide a 90-day transition plan for the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility.

The company has spent nearly three decades running the facility, which houses state inmates under a contract with the Tennessee Department of Correction. The facility houses felons convicted to one to six years, making it more like a prison, Hall said. The state covers the costs and the county acts as a pass-through, Hall added.

At a news conference last week, Nashville council members Freddie O’Connell and Emily Benedict introduced a proposal to drop the CoreCivic contract, which costs $18 million a year, and have the sheriff's office operating the jail starting in July 2022. Benedict said the decision would remove the city from doing business with a multibillion-dollar company that profits off incarceration.

Sheriff Daron Hall said the change would be “a philosophical one, not performance based,” saying the company has consistently met contractual requirements at the facility that can house more than 1,300 inmates. But the sheriff said he's confident the budget impact to Nashville would be minimal aside from a $5 million startup cost, which would include paying for various equipment, supplies, furniture and other items.

By Monday, CoreCivic soured on the relationship to the point that its CEO accused the sheriff and some council members of “pushing an agenda that's void of facts, ideologically driven and completely ignores CoreCivic’s decades long history of exceptional performance."

"While we acknowledge that it is Metro’s prerogative to take steps toward ending our contract, we cannot allow our company, more important our employees, to be used as a punching bag by political opportunists who do not value the services we provide,” Hininger wrote.

O'Connell, the council member, tweeted in response Monday that CoreCivic's “commitment to their inmate population and a public conversation about offering public safety while moving away from mass incarceration is clear from this communication.”

“They’re just here for the easy money,” O'Connell tweeted.

Hall said he was surprised by CoreCivic's letter but added that the company might have felt “left out of that conversation." He said he has hoped for a six-month transition period, and now is working with officials to see what options exist.

“I wasn’t at the press conference. I’ve never said anything bad about that facility, that operation, because my job is to make sure they’re performing," Hall said in an interview. "This is a facility that if the city wants the county the run and they’re going to give me the money to do it, or the state, and the time to do it, at some point philosophically that’s where the city is.”

CoreCivic's current contract ends July 29. On May 21, it received a notice that Nashville intended to award a new five-year contract. The company says that last week it received a contract extension request through Aug. 21 of this year, which CoreCivic interpreted as connected to the effort to end the contract because it would allow time for the proposal to be heard before the Metro Council.

The state's contract to house inmates at the facility continues perpetually unless the state or Nashville terminates it, Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said.

CoreCivic operates four of Tennessee's 14 state prisons, but the company also has agreements to run other lockups throughout the state.

CoreCivic has about 15,000 employees and has recently averaged about 56,000 inmates in its facilities at more than 70 prisons, detention centers and community corrections facilities, Hininger said in an earnings call in May.

The company was long based in Nashville. It is now is headquartered in Brentwood, just outside the city.

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Travis Loller in Nashville contributed to this report.