Jane Hussain standing on the sidewalk across the street from the Renaissance Hotel Tuesday morning at 8:15 am.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN  — A dozen people who want to shutter Tennessee’s four private prisons  picketed outside the Renaissance Hotel early Tuesday morning. They were there to shame the Chamber of Commerce for accepting money from CoreCivic, the nation’s second largest private prison operator, and allowing the company to sponsor the Chamber’s 2020 Annual Celebration.

The event was a breakfast and awards ceremony followed by a two-hour workshop. Getting into the hotel was a bit tough because a cluster of MNPD officers surrounded the entrance. The Commerce St. sidewalk between 6th and 5th was barricaded with metal crowd barriers. Metro police asked Public Works to erect the barriers “to avoid any confrontations or disruptions” on the sidewalk or inside the hotel.

A MNPD spokesperson said they didn’t know what the protestors intentions were or how many would show up so they asked the Public Works Department to set up the barriers. The hotel asked for a lane closure on Commerce and to close the sidewalk to anyone except registered hotel guests and Chamber of Commerce attendees. The hotel obtained two permits.

“Nobody was blocking a passageway, there was no violence, no blocking the sidewalk,” said Jeannie Alexander, Director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective. “The only conclusion a reasonable person could draw is that they were trying to intimidate the protestors into silence,” she said.

There were about three dozen police officers milling about with several motorcycles, a van and at least a dozen bicycles parked in front of the hotel. MNPD closed the public sidewalk for about three hours, reserving it for the Chamber of Commerce and hotel guests.

MNPD said their officers were on duty from Central and Midtown Precincts including flex units and patrol cars. Since they were all on regular shifts, there was no extra cost for providing security for the Chamber’s event.

“It seems to be a regular pattern with MNPD to over-police any legal protest situation. It seems that is their policy,” Alexander said. She and four others were arrested for trespassing, booked at Metro jail, and released. 

There are fourteen state prisons in Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Corrections runs 10 prisons and CoreCivic runs four. CoreCivic has a big presence in other states. It runs 65 facilities, including 34 state prisons, 14 federal prisons, 9 immigration centers, and 4 jails. The company employs almost 17,000 people and in 2015 made $1.8 billion. The company started in Nashville in 1983 and is headquartered here. 

While very profitable CoreCivic has been criticized for poor medical care at its facilities and excessive violence. Beth Foster of the Tennessee Poor Peoples’ Campaign said the company plays a villainous role in creating mass incarceration in the U.S. and that impacts mostly people of color, immigrants, and the poor.  “There is a perverse incentive for the company to keep people in custody to maximize profits,” she said.