(CN) — A prison reform advocate who once testified before Congress is facing a federal charge after allegedly hiding pistols and escape tools in a detention center under construction in Nashville.
Alex Friedmann, who was managing editor for Prison Legal News, was a felon in possession of about a score of firearms, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee, and he stashed them at a friend’s house as he was facing mounting legal troubles after he was caught allegedly dressed as a construction worker in the unfinished jail.
After Friedmann’s January arrest, law enforcement found razor blades, handcuff keys, security bits and handguns and ammunition placed in plastic, wrapped with tape and hidden in the walls of the downtown jail being built for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office.
Friedmann was an expert and critic of the private prison industry, according to his resumé posted on Prison Legal News. Over the years, he issued reports to Congress, testified before the Tennessee Legislature, and was a plaintiff in several lawsuits.
For instance, he was a plaintiff in a 2008 lawsuit challenging felon disenfranchisement.
He testified before the Committee on the Judiciary in June 2008 on a bill that would have required private prison companies to release information as if they were subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Many prison reform advocates say that federal and state governments use private prison companies to shield government from liability for prison abuses.
On Jan. 4, the sheriff’s department for Nashville arrested Friedmann on charges of possessing burglary tools, tampering with evidence and attempted burglary. The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office says Friedmann was arrested after entering the jail carrying bolt cutters in a cooler and a map of the building, which he allegedly ripped up and chewed upon being arrested. The federal complaint says he was dressed like a construction worker, wearing a yellow vest, gloves, a hard hat and dust mask.
He was released on bail.
The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office Downtown Detention Center, which was almost completed, was a maximum-security with 762 beds. It replaced the justice center that was demolished in July 2016.
The sheriff’s office started an investigation after discovering missing keys at the construction site, the affidavit said.
After Friedmann’s arrest, the sheriff’s office began reviewing earlier surveillance footage. It found instances in which a person “whose physical appearance was consistent with Friedmann, and who was dressed in a manner consistent with” the way he was dressed when he was arrested visit the worksite about 10 times stretching back to Aug. 30.
In some instances, the person was accompanied, the complaint said. Footage from one visit showed the person using a grinder to remove material and place an item in the wall, the complaint said.
In February, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department searched the jail and found four packages wrapped in plastic and covered with tape. The contents of the packages varied, but they contained three pistols with their serial numbers drilled through.
On Feb. 18, a Davidson County Grand Jury indicted Friedmann on a charge of vandalism.
The day before, the federal affidavit said, he had asked a friend in Joelton, Tennessee if he could store legal documents at her house. Surveillance video footage from her house on Feb. 18 allegedly showed Friedmann carrying black crates with yellow tops from a rental van to her garage.
When Nashville police cut open the crates, they discovered 13 pistols, ammunition, four rifles, two shotguns and a lower receiver, according to the complaint.
Friedmann is said to have had a storage area at a condominium complex in Nashville and a longtime acquaintance said he had seen him, “acting ‘frantic’ and ‘desperate’,” while loading about 10 to 15 padlocked crates into a rental van on Feb. 18.
When investigators looked in the storage area, they noticed the wall made from concrete blocks contained mortar that was repainted. The mortar appeared to have been removed and replaced with concrete or rubber caulk, the affidavit said.
“Investigators recognized the aforementioned inconsistencies as potentially being practice attempts by Friedmann,” the document said.
According to Friedmann’s resumé, he was incarcerated in the Tennessee Department of Corrections from 1992 to 1999. The affidavit in support of the federal complaint says he was convicted in 1989 of armed robbery and assault with the intent to commit firs- degree murder. In 1992, he was sentenced for attempted aggravated robbery.
Ben Raybin, Friedmann’s attorney, told Courthouse News in an email: “We have just received a copy of the new allegations and will respond in the appropriate manner.”
If convicted, Friedmann could face up to 10 years in prison.
Friedmann’s friends began a GoFundMe campaign in February to help pay for his attorney, pay down his bond and cover court fees. It said he had resigned from his job as editor and was unemployed.
“If you are familiar with Alex and his work and advocacy on criminal justice issues, you know his arrest was totally unexpected and completely unlike him,” the GoFundMe page said. “There is obviously much more to this story, but he can’t tell it or explain his actions while the charges remain pending. At some point, the truth will come out.”