This post was updated at 7:30 a.m.
The Metro Council is preparing to reevaluate its contract with Brentwood-based private prison operator CoreCivic. The contract expires in January of next year.
But a new study released Monday finds that such a move would be costly.
Prison reform advocates have urged the Metro Council for years to end its contract with CoreCivic. The for-profit prison company oversees the Metro Detention Facility, a prison next door to the county jail for felons serving one- to six-year-terms.
Critics have cited reports of poor conditions in CoreCivic’s facilities, both in Nashville and across the country. A study released earlier this year by the Human Rights Defense Center found twice as many inmates have been killed in Tennessee prisons operated by CoreCivic since 2014 as in state-run facilities. And a 2017 audit uncovered serious staffing shortages and safety issues at several of its prisons.
But cutting ties with the corporation wouldn’t be easy. The new report, prepared by Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell, finds that it would cost more than $35 million each year to operate the facility.
“It is now time for Nashville to weigh the moral costs of continued operation of MDF against the fiscal cost of public operation,” O’Connell said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “I hope this mayor’s office and this council will use this opportunity to work with our state partners to pursue ending private prisons in Nashville.”
State funding would cover a budget about half the size of the one outlined O’Connell’s report. Metro dollars would have to pick up the rest.
The state reimburses prison operators a daily rate for each person they house. Sheriff’s offices receive a flat rate of $37 per inmate. CoreCivic, however, has negotiated much higher reimbursement rates: $58.32 for male prisoners and $66.01 for females. And that number is slated to increase each year, per the company’s contract with the state.
“Here is somebody that has basically somehow made a case to the state that they’re supposed to be operating more efficiently, and yet they deserve a much, much higher rate of reimbursement,” O’Connell said. “I’m still trying to get my head around that.”
In an emailed statement, a CoreCivic spokesman said the company is proud of its 27-year partnership with the Metro Detention Facility and looks forwards “to continuing to work with Metro officials and to providing high-quality services at a savings for taxpayers in the community.”
O’Connell plans to meet with local members of the General Assembly to see if the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office or another agency could receive the same reimbursement rate, moving forward.
DCSO provided data for the report, but said it was up to the council and the mayor to decide whether or not it should operate the prison moving forward. A spokeswoman for Mayor John Cooper said he plans to meet with the finance department this week before making any decisions.
O’Connell doesn’t think Metro will have the resources to end its contract with CoreCivic in the next fiscal year. The council will need to draft a budget that specifically prioritizes funding the Metro Detention Facility, he said.
O’Connell thinks that level of commitment is likely two or three years away. But he also thinks it’s worth it.
“Thinking through the costs of how mass incarceration affect literally the people that I represent, the history of the geography that I represent,” he said, “I think we can do a lot better than turning that dimension of their lives into profit centers for private operation.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.