Judge: CCA in contempt for prison understaffing

Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge says private prison company Corrections Corporation of America is in contempt of court for persistently understaffing an Idaho prison in direct violation of a legal settlement.

U.S. District Judge David Carter made the ruling Monday in a lawsuit between inmates at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center and the Nashville, Tenn.-based company.

Carter wrote that CCA had ample reason to make sure it was meeting the staffing requirements at the prison, yet the level of understaffing was apparently far worse than the company originally acknowledged. He is appointing an independent monitor to oversee staffing at the prison, and says steep fines — starting at $100 an hour — will incur if the company violates the agreement again.

The judge also rejected CCA's contention that the former warden and other company officials didn't know about the understaffing, saying that they had been warned of the staffing problems multiple times and at the very least failed to check it out.

"For CCA staff to lie on so basic a point — whether an officer is actually at a post — leaves the Court with serious concerns about compliance in other respects, such as whether every violent incident is reported," Carter wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of inmates at ICC in 2010, contending that the prison was so violent inmates dubbed it "Gladiator School." CCA denied the allegations but reached a settlement that required increased staffing levels and other operational changes.

That settlement was set to expire this month, but the ACLU asked the judge to extend it and find CCA in contempt for failing to abide by the agreement.

CCA acknowledged earlier this year that its employees filed reports with the state that falsely showed 4,800 hours of vacant security posts as being staffed during 2012. But during the contempt of court hearing, witnesses revealed that number only included the night shift during a seven-month span.

"It is clear that the non-compliance was far worse than the report of about 4,800 hours would lead one to believe," Carter wrote. "... There is also no reason to believe the problem only began in April 2012 and was solved after October 2012. Indeed, even in the weeks prior to the contempt hearings, mandatory posts were still going unfilled — thus there remains persistent staffing pressure that is the backdrop to prison employees fabricating records. The difference today is that CCA may finally be presenting an accurate picture of its inability to fully staff its prison."

The Idaho State Police are currently investigating whether CCA committed any crimes when it gave the false staffing reports to the Idaho Department of Corrections and when it failed to meet the minimum staffing requirements under its $29 million contract with the state.

The federal judge said it would be up to the state to determine just how understaffed the prison was, and that he wouldn't order CCA to carry out its own audit.

"Further, IDOC has contractual remedies against CCA; it is up to that agency to determine what compensation it pursues for having been lied to," Carter wrote.

He also rejected CCA's "no harm, no foul" claim that the understaffing didn't lead to increased violence or other problems.

"Having enough correctional officers can deter violence, but also it offers other benefits, such as having enough staff on the prison floor to accurately track the levels of violence in the first place," he noted.

The private prison company better have its checkbook ready if the violations persist, according to the ruling: Carter indicated he would make the fines as stiff as necessary to make CCA comply.

"If a prospective fine leads to $2.4 million in penalties, CCA has no one to blame but itself," Carter wrote.

CCA spokesman Steven Owen said in a prepared statement that the company was reviewing the ruling and considering next steps.

"We believe we are taking all appropriate steps to correct the staffing matter and are unaware of any new findings beyond what we've previously acknowledged. We are meeting the contractual staffing requirements and are working on an ongoing basis to ensure that continues," Owen wrote. "... Our top priority is the safety of our staff, the inmates entrusted to our care and the communities where we operate, and we are committed to providing the state and Idaho's taxpayers with the highest quality corrections service."

ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar said in a prepared statement that the organization was thankful to the judge for carefully examining the evidence.

"It took great effort to uncover the truth," Pevar wrote. "ICC was missing thousands of hours of guards. What is particularly disturbing is that CCA failed to adequately staff ICC despite the obvious additional risk of assault that created for both prisoners and staff and the unnecessary stress and fear it generated."

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