The new governor told reporters he's asked budget writers to find potential cost savings inside the Department of Correction — as well as among all 50 state agencies — but that request did not specify considering cuts to the state's use of private prisons.
"I don't have a reason to be concerned right now," Lee said. "I haven't analyzed that at all. So without the analysis, no reason to have a concern."
Tennessee has four private prisons, all managed by Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. Though the state runs 10 prisons, CoreCivic houses roughly one-third of the state's 30,000 inmates. The company also manages a handful of county jails.
Correction officials expect private-run prisons will cost Tennessee $176.8 million next year.
CoreCivic's political action committee donated $23,600 to Lee's campaign last year when the Republican was running for office for the first time. They gave the maximum amount of $11,800 during both the primary and general elections. The same PAC has donated thousands of dollars to lawmakers across the state in the past, making it a highly influential group among the Republican-dominated Statehouse.
Last year, a Republican lawmaker introduced legislation designed to eventually phase out Tennessee's use of private prisons by stopping all new private prison contracts from using a so-called "occupancy guarantee" — where the state promises to pay a contractor for 90 percent occupancy whether it's at that level or not. However, the bill ultimately failed to gain traction.
The bill's introduction followed a November 2017 state comptroller report that mainly focused on staffing woes at CoreCivic's Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, including a shortage of correctional officers. The audit also said much of the staffing information needed to monitor what's happening behind bars was riddled with errors or wasn't shared with the state.
Trousdale has been fined more than $2.5 million since May 2017, Department of Correction CFO Wes Landers said at a legislative hearing last month. Officials have since said that compliance there has improved, the state has doubled its monitoring staff at private facilities and CoreCivic has increased the average starting wages at its prisons.
At the same meeting, a former inmate testified that he was raped twice at Trousdale and was ignored by officials. He said he brought his bloody boxers with him in an envelope.
Meanwhile, Curt Campbell, of Men of Valor prison ministry, praised his group's partnership with CoreCivic during the legislative meeting last month. Campbell said Lee met with him and CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger about topics like re-entry and justice reform during a Men of Valor board meeting last month.
"I want to look at the entire department and where there are opportunities for cost savings and the differences in what that looks like in the differences in contract prisons, but we haven't had those conversations (on private prisons) yet," Lee said Friday.
Lee's remarks on Friday came after listening to several hours of budget briefings from various departments pitching the governor their upcoming monetary challenges and requests for fiscal year 2019-2020.
While talking briefly on private prisons, Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker spent a large amount of his time in front of the governor warning he's planning on asking for a salary increase for correctional and parole officers.
Parker says Tennessee is one of the lowest-ranked states in the country for correctional staffer pay and he's currently juggling a 54 percent turnover rate. The low wages have led to a 500 staff vacancies inside the department.
The average state salary is about $27,300 a year for a correctional officer.