Private prison contractor CoreCivic hit with two new lawsuits over inmate deaths
Hardeman County Correctional Facility. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)
The parents of three inmates who died behind bars in a span of just four months in 2021 are accusing private prison operator CoreCivic of Tennessee of repeatedly placing profits over safety and failing to police its own guards.
“CoreCivic needs to be held accountable, and the (parents) intend to do just that,” attorney Janet Goode wrote in one of two wrongful death lawsuits filed recently in U.S. District Court against the Nashville-based company.
The two lawsuits — the latest in a stack of litigation filed against the for-profit prison operator in recent years — accuse the company of intentionally understaffing the four prisons it runs in Tennessee to boost profits for shareholders, holding costs at bay by refusing to seek outside medical care for ailing inmates, ignoring drug smuggling by its own guards and failing to keep inmates safe.
The lawsuits detail the deaths of three men — Chriteris Allen, Laeddie Coleman and Joshua Williams — at three CoreCivic facilities from August to November 2021.
Allen, 22, was an inmate at the Whiteville Correctional Facility in Whiteville, Tenn., when he was found dead in his cell on Aug. 26, 2001, from a fentanyl overdose. The lawsuit alleges guards failed to conduct mandatory “head counts” because of chronic understaffing and did not discover Allen’s body for at least five hours after his death.
Coleman, 34, was fatally stabbed inside a pod at the Hardeman County Correctional Facility in Whiteville, Tenn., on Sept. 7, 2021. Records reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout show the pod was not being monitored by prison guards at the time — even though another inmate had been stabbed in the same pod just minutes before the attack on Coleman.
Williams, 37, died inside the South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tenn., on Nov. 14, 2021, from a fentanyl overdose. An autopsy showed he was suffering from “systemic infections throughout his body, including pneumonia,” at the time of his death. A Tennessee Department of Corrections investigation showed two guards falsely claimed they repeatedly checked on Williams in the hours before his death, according to an exhibit filed in connection with the litigation.
“To maintain its profit margin — and as a result of its chronic and profit-motivated deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety — CoreCivic serially underinvests in prison staff, security and inmate healthcare at its prisons, leading to predictable and horrific results,” attorney Daniel Horwitz wrote in the litigation.
Horwitz represents Coleman’s father, Eddie Tardy. Goode represents Allen’s parents, Christa Cook and Christopher Derrick Montgomery, and Williams’ mother, Brenda Williams.
CoreCivic spokesman Matthew Davio said the firm does not “comment on active or pending litigation.”
“But I can tell you that we take our responsibility to care for the individuals in our facilities very seriously, and we work hard to ensure that we meet the stringent standards set by our government partners and ourselves,” Davio added. “The safety of our staff and the inmates entrusted to our care is our top priority. CoreCivic is committed to the health and safety of our employees, the individuals in our care and our communities.”
Parents: CoreCivic responsible for sons’ deaths
Allen’s parents allege in their lawsuit that the fentanyl that killed their son was “smuggled into the prison by guard staff.” They allege CoreCivic leaders fail to properly screen guard applicants and ignore evidence of drug-smuggling by its staff.
They also allege that on the day of Allen’s death CoreCivic guards violated TDOC policy “to conduct a head count at breakfast and lunch (and) check inmates’ cells every 30 minutes to determine whether anyone inside was moving.”
“After (Allen) died, (his mother) learned that CoreCivic’s guards did not conduct the cell checks because they were understaffed,” the lawsuit stated. “Whereas two to three guards are normally assigned to a pod, only one guard was assigned to the pod on the day of (Allen’s) death.
“In a handwritten statement submitted to TDOC, (a CoreCivic guard) reported that she conducted a check of (Allen’s) cell … and that he was still breathing at that time,” the lawsuit continued. “(Her) statement is false, however, because rigor mortis indicated that (Allen) was dead well before that time. (Another CoreCivic guard) also submitted a handwritten statement falsely claiming that she had checked (Allen’s) cell … on the date of his death. In reality, neither of them checked his cell until after they were informed that he was dead.”
Williams’ mother says in the litigation that her son “used a smuggled cell phone to take photographs of his infected legs” less than two weeks before his death. Those photographs are included as exhibits and show a red rash covering both his legs.
Williams’ mother alerted CoreCivic via email to her son’s infection. CoreCivic Managing Director Vance Laughlin responded the following day and assured her that Williams “has been treated appropriately.”
“(Williams) has made some poor choices through addiction that has had very negative effects on his legs, and we are working with him to treat it as best we can,” Laughlin wrote.
Williams died two days later.
To maintain its profit margin — and as a result of its chronic and profit-motivated deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety — CoreCivic serially underinvests in prison staff, security and inmate healthcare at its prisons, leading to predictable and horrific results.
– Daniel Horwitz, attorney for the family of Laeddie Coleman, in a legal filing
“Any layperson, much less any competent medical professional, would have known that Joshua needed urgent medical care beyond the capabilities of the prison,” the Williams’ litigation stated. “Nonetheless, and despite the urgent pleas of his parents, (Williams) was not sent to a hospital. Instead, he was left to rot.”
Williams’ mother contends in the lawsuit her son’s cellmate “tried to notify guards for several hours that (Williams) was in dire need of medical help (but) his pleas for help were ignored.”
A TDOC investigation into Williams’ death revealed CoreCivic guards claimed in log books that they repeatedly checked on Williams prior to his death but prison video did not back up the claims.
Like Allen’s parents, Williams’ mother alleges the fentanyl found in her son’s system after his death “was smuggled into (the facility) by guard staff.”
Coleman’s father contends in his lawsuit that CoreCivic intentionally left his son’s pod unsupervised on the day of his death because Hardeman County is “severely understaffed.” While the pod was left unsupervised, inmates attacked fellow prisoner Devin Jamison, stabbing him repeatedly, the lawsuit stated. Even after that attack, the pod remained unsupervised, the litigation stated, and Coleman was similarly attacked just minutes after the assault on Jamison.
“On notice both generally that CoreCivic’s understaffing policies result in extreme and preventable violence and specifically that its understaffing had resulted in near-fatal violence in Mr. Coleman’s pod just minutes before his death, (CoreCivic guards) still took no action to secure the pod, to ensure that all weapons had been removed from the area or to ensure that it was adequately staffed to prevent retaliatory violence,” the Coleman litigation stated.
Audits find problems at CoreCivic sites
CoreCivic is the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator. The firm runs four prisons in Tennessee.
I can tell you that we take our responsibility to care for the individuals in our facilities very seriously, and we work hard to ensure that we meet the stringent standards set by our government partners and ourselves.
– Matthew Davio, spokesman for CoreCivic
A 2019 analysis by the No Exceptions Prison Collective and the Human Rights Defense Center showed the murder rate at its Tennessee prisons is four times that of penal facilities operated by the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
The number of lawsuits filed against CoreCivic and its four Tennessee prisons over inmate deaths and unsafe conditions in the past six years far outpace those lodged against TDOC, which manages 10 penal facilities, court records show.
A performance audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office in 2020 of CoreCivic facilities in the state found myriad problems, including the failure to properly document inmate deaths and violence and identify the causes and adequately staff its prisons.
A chart compiled as part of the audit revealed CoreCivic facilities in Tennessee logged more than double the number of “life-threatening matters and breaches of security,” including deaths, assaults, rapes, escapes and lockdowns, reported at TDOC facilities from 2017 to 2019.
An audit by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General in 2016 detailed widespread staffing deficiencies, inadequate medical care and unchecked violence at CoreCivic facilities across the country. The company’s own shareholders sued the firm that same year for misrepresenting staffing levels and quality of medical care provided to inmates.
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