By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America is trying to seal from public view documents in a lawsuit that claim female visitors to a Tennessee prison were forced to undergo strip searches to prove they were menstruating.
Three women have accused the company of violating their rights by forcing them to expose their genitals to guards after they tried to bring sanitary pads or tampons into South Central Correctional Facility, about 85 miles southwest of Nashville. One woman said her three children had to witness the search.
Protective orders in the case allow documents that could pose a security risk to the prison to be filed under seal. Each side is accusing the other of violating those orders.
Attorneys for the women accuse the private prison company of sealing documents where no genuine security concern exists in order to protect itself from embarrassment, violating the public’s right to access court proceedings.
The Nashville-based company said the plaintiffs, who have been allowed to proceed anonymously, are trying to “inflame the public” and expose confidential prison information.
The controversy began last month after the plaintiffs publicly filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asking a judge to rule on some issues where the facts are not in dispute. Two supporting documents were also filed publicly but the exhibits were filed under seal, with plaintiffs asking the judge to let them file a redacted public copy in 10 days.
The company objected and asked that all of the documents be placed under seal.
The plaintiffs shot back, asking the judge to reject the company’s request and instead order it to publicly refile its motion for summary judgment and supporting documents, which it had previously filed under seal.
“Under defendants’ broad reading of the protective order, any filing even mentioning prison conditions at a CCA-run state prison would be locked away, effectively immunizing CCA prisons from public scrutiny on an issue of obvious public import,” the plaintiffs said.
The company counters that the plaintiffs “believe the procedures and practices of visitation staff of a prison should be open for the world to see, but fail to realize that such information can have devastating effects to a prison’s ability to keep its inmates, staff and visitors safe.”
Ed Yarbrough, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice, said the blanket sealing of court filings would be unusual, and the law generally doesn’t favor it.
“The reason for it is probably to keep it out of the public press,” he said. “That can sometimes be legitimate and can sometimes be because the company doesn’t want their dirty laundry aired.”
Alex Friedmann is the managing editor of Prison Legal News and was once a prisoner at South Central Correctional Facility himself. He took the company to court in 2008 after the company claimed it was not subject to Tennessee’s open records law. The company eventually lost but did not give up easily.
Friedmann said it took him five years to get the answer to his public records request. Even after the ruling, CCA has continued to fight subsequent information requests, he said.
“They disclose as little information as they can get away with,” he said.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen defended the way the company discloses prison information.
“Safety and security — for the staff and inmates in our facilities and for the public — is our top priority,” he said in an emailed statement. “To that end, we have a responsibility to ensure that any release of information does not undermine safety and security.”
U.S. District Magistrate Judge E. Clifton Knowles has temporarily placed the plaintiff’s documents under seal but has not made a final ruling. He also has not yet ruled on whether the company must unseal its filings.