Two Murders in Seven Months at CCA-run Prison in Tennessee

Two Murders in Seven Months at CCA-run Prison in Tennessee

By Prison Legal News

On May 23, 2014, the Medical Examiner’s Office in Nashville completed an autopsy report on Tennessee state prisoner Jeffery Sills, 43, who was murdered at the South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Wayne County, on March 28. The facility is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company.

Sills’ death was classified as a homicide caused by “blunt and sharp force injuries.” He was allegedly beaten and stabbed to death by his cellmate, Travis Bess, who was later transferred to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

Jeffery Sills was at least the second prisoner murdered at the CCA-run prison since September 1, 2013, when Gerald Ewing, 28, was killed during a series of fights at the facility. Comparably, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction, there were no homicides at state-run prisons in the calendar year 2013 and to date this year.

Jeffery Sills’ death was particularly brutal, according to the autopsy report. He suffered lacerations, abrasions, and contusions to his head and neck, fractured cheek and nasal bones, cutting and stab/puncture wounds, and hemorrhages in the “posterior cervical spinal muscles” and “skeletal muscle of the back and intercostal muscles of the posterior thorax.”

Prison Legal News managing editor Alex Friedmann, who also serves as associate director of PLN’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), said both prisoners and a CCA staff member employed at South Central contacted HRDC after Sills was murdered.

“Several prisoners said Bess had publicly stated he would kill Jeffrey Sills if they were placed in a cell together and that CCA guards were present when he made that statement. Regardless, they were both put in the same cell with predictable results.” Additionally, “the CCA employee who contacted us reported that Sills had asked to be placed in protective custody, but prison staff failed to act on his request before he was murdered,” said Friedmann, who served six years at South Central himself prior to his release in 1999.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating Sills’ death and has reportedly indicated that an indictment will issue soon.

“Two murders within seven months is extremely disturbing,” Friedmann stated, “especially considering that CCA houses about 5,000 [Tennessee] state prisoners in three facilities while around 15,000 prisoners are held in 11 state-run facilities. Yet despite holding one-third as many prisoners, none of whom are classified maximum-security, two murders occurred at a CCA facility and zero in state prisons within the same time period.”

According to research conducted by HRDC, historically, there have been higher rates of violence at the three CCA-operated facilities in Tennessee than in state prisons. Based on the most recent data provided by the Department of Correction, during the first five months of 2013, the average rate of violent incidents at the CCA-run prisons – including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults, and institutional disturbances – was 24.6% higher than at state facilities.

“Other studies have also found higher levels of violence at privately-managed prisons,” said Friedmann. “This is presumably due to the business model of the private prison industry, which must cut costs in order to generate profit. Those cuts, particularly in regard to staffing costs, lead to high staff turnover rates, understaffing, and thus less security at private prisons. Consequently, there are higher rates of violence – up to and including murder, evidently.”

The FBI is currently investigating fraudulent staffing reports at a CCA prison in Idaho. [See: PLN, Oct. 15, 2013, p.28; May 2013, p.22].

There have been two other recent homicides at CCA-operated prisons in other states, including the November 2013 murder of Michael Patrick McNaughton, 55, who was beaten to death at a CCA facility in Florence, Arizona, and the March 2014 murder of California prisoner Todd Bush, 33, at the CCA-run North Fork Correctional Facility in Oklahoma.

Source: HRDC press release (June 12, 2014)

(Reprinted with Permission from Prison Legal News)