Prison Reform Advocate Accused Of Breaking Into Tennessee Jail

Alex Friedmann has spent years working to improve prison conditions for incarcerated people. He now faces two felony charges.
Alex Friedmann, an outspoken advocate for prison reform and a former inmate, is currently the managing editor of Prison Legal News.
Alex Friedmann, an outspoken advocate for prison reform and a former inmate, is currently the managing editor of Prison Legal News.
Davidson County Sheriff's Office

A well-known advocate for criminal justice reform was arrested on Saturday after allegedly breaking into a jail under construction in Nashville, Tennessee.

Authorities say Alex Friedmann, 50, posed as a construction worker and entered the Downtown Detention Center of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office on multiple occasions, stealing keys and making a diagram of the jail’s layout.

On Dec. 30, sheriff’s lieutenants noticed that a set of keys in the jail’s key control room had a ring that differed from the others. After an audit, they discovered that two facility keys were missing. Surveillance video revealed that a man dressed as a construction worker had spray-painted around the key control room before entering and taking a set of keys. They were returned two hours later, according to police, with two keys missing.

On Saturday, deputies noticed a man resembling the suspect entering the jail. They detained Friedmann, who was carrying an Igloo cooler containing bolt cutters, and a diagram of the jail, which he tried to destroy by “ripping it and chewing it up,” according to a press release from the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities believe Friedmann entered the building fraudulently on previous occasions.

The detention center ― a 762-bed, maximum security facility ― is in its final stages of construction. The incident may now delay its opening.

Friedmann is charged with attempted burglary, evidence tampering and possession of burglary tools. He is currently out on bond and due back in court in February. He declined to comment on advice of counsel.

Paroled in 1999 after spending about a decade in jails and prisons in Tennessee, Friedmann became an advocate for the rights of incarcerated people. He took a particular interest in the private prison industry, as six of his years were served in a facility run by Corrections Corporation of America, now called CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies in the U.S.

He is currently the managing editor of Prison Legal News, a 72-page monthly magazine covering issues such as “prison labor, rape and sexual abuse, misconduct by prison and jail staff [and] prisoners’ constitutional rights,” and whose subscriber base is primarily behind bars. In his capacity as an advocate, Friedmann is often quoted by news outlets, and has consulted on criminal justice issues for television shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” according to his resume.

Speaking with Vice in 2014, Friedmann described how he has used unorthodox methods to reform the criminal justice system from the inside out. He bought stocks in private prison companies, including CoreCivic, which allowed him to attend shareholder meetings and to submit shareholder resolutions to the SEC.

“I would ask questions like, ‘Why do your employees keep raping prisoners?’” Friedmann said at the time. “Of course they don’t have a good response, other than ‘We’re doing the best job we can.’”

Paul Wright, the founder of Prison Legal News, told HuffPost he was not aware that Friedmann had any plans to enter the Nashville jail illegally.

“I think the critical thing is that at this point, these are only allegations,” Wright said. “Until the court process plays itself out, we don’t know what actually happened. It’s important to keep an open mind.”

He was not sure if Prison Legal News had published any articles on the new jail.

In a statement, Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said Friedmann’s actions placed the safety and security of the entire community in peril.

“There is only one reason for these sinister acts and that is to compromise our ability to maintain a secure facility and that is unconscionable and dangerous for everyone,” he said.

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