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The magic of private prisons

dark cell

Back in August 2007, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter held forth on the idea of coping with rising demand in the state for prison space, by using the wizardry of the marketplace, so business “can go out in the marketplace and kind of work their magic.” And Corrections Director Bent Reinke was quoted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review as saying, “There’s a desire by both the board of correction and the governor’s office to have Idaho’s next prison be privatized.”

Ridenbaugh Press long has been skeptical of the usefulness of private prisons. It’s been a recurring theme here since before the Idaho Correctional Center opened near Kuna in July 2000; our prediction then was that a private prison in Idaho would be (we remarked on this before a contractor was named) a scandal waiting to happen.

Ten years later, at the ICC managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, here’s the opening shot in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit:

ICC is an extraordinarily violent prison. It is known in Idaho as “Gladiator School” for a reason. More violence occurs at ICC than at Idaho’s eight other prisons combined, and the unnecessary carnage and suffering that has resulted is shameful and inexcusable. ICC not only condones prisoner violence, the entrenched culture of ICC promotes, facilitates, and encourages it. Indeed, ICC staff cruelly use prisoner violence as a management tool.

Violence is epidemic at ICC for a host of reasons, including the fact that the Defendants turn a blind-eye to it; they fail to adequately investigate assaults and therefore are unable to fashion effective remedial measures to prevent assaults from recurring; they refuse to discipline the guards whose malfeasance precipitated prisoner violence; they frequently place vulnerable prisoners with predators; they fail to protect prisoners who request and need protection from assault; and ICC is understaffed, inadequately supervised, and guards are inadequately trained.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the imposition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” This means, the Supreme Court has recognized, that prison officials have a duty “to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994). In other words, people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. “Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.” Government officials “are not free to let the state of nature take its course” in America’s prisons. The administrators of ICC are ignoring this constitutional duty, resulting in wholesale fear, intimidation, and violence within the prisoner population.

ICC is owned by the State of Idaho, was built with tax funds, and is located on public land. However, ICC is operated (for a profit) by Corrections Corporation of America pursuant to a contract with the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC). Plaintiffs request, among other things, that IDOC be ordered by this Court to set strict deadlines by which ICC must develop adequate policies, and hire and train a sufficient number of guards, to reasonably safeguard prisoners from assault, and that if ICC continues to ignore its duties under the Eighth Amendment, the Court should order IDOC to remove all Idaho prisoners from this excessively violent and inhumane facility.

Such a magical marketplace. The suit points out the difference between privately-run and state-run prison facilities: “Until recently, ICC housed approximately the same number of prisoners as does the Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI), nearly 1,500 men. Yet, during 2008 and 2009, three times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults occurred at ICC as at ISCI. Recently, new housing units were opened at ICC, and ICC now houses approximately 2000 prisoners.” And: “The number of assaults actually occurring at ICC is considerably higher than reported, perhaps three times as high. For one thing, ICC deliberately fails to document many assaults. For another, many victims of prisoner assault choose to conceal the incident out of fear of reprisal by prisoners for being a “snitch.”

And this is happening because . . .

There are at least eleven reasons why violence at ICC far exceeds the violence in other Idaho facilities. They are: (a) deliberate indifference of many ICC employees, including the named defendants; (b) inadequate training of staff; (c) inadequate number of staff; (d) inadequate supervision of staff; (e) the promotion of a culture throughout the facility that relies on the degradation, humiliation, and subjugation of prisoners, thereby creating excessive and unnecessary tension, stress, and frustration within the prisoner population; (f) failure to adequately investigate acts of violence, including a failure to track the number and location of assaults so as to take appropriate remedial action; (g) failure to discipline those guards whose misconduct or malfeasance contributed to an act of violence, including those guards who deliberately arranged assaults or who refused to remove a prisoner from a clearly dangerous environment; (h) placement of vulnerable prisoners with predatory prisoners; (i) failure to isolate or properly discipline prisoners who attack other prisoners; (j) maintaining a “code of silence” such that staff are discouraged from reporting errors, including their own errors, that caused or contributed to an act of prisoner violence; and (k) the deliberate reliance on – and encouragement of – prisoner violence as a management tool.

These points are supported by a boatload of specifics.

On medical care, for example: “ICC maintains its own in-house medical unit, and it is obvious that ICC – under the direction and instruction of CCA and Warden Valdez – operates this unit in such a depraved manner that its intention is to conceal injuries, not treat them. For instance, CCA and Valdez have established a policy and practice of not taking x-rays of the severe injuries suffered by assault victims. This way, (a) ICC saves money (at the expense of prisoners who need urgent medical care) by not taking x-rays and not hiring medical staff to read the x-rays, and (b) ICC is able to conceal the extent of injuries suffered by the victims of assault.” A logical response to the marketplace, in other words.

The text of the lawsuit is lengthy, about 81 pages, but the first 14 or so at least are well worth the read, and all of it is compelling.

What we’re seeing here is the opening side of the cost chain; more will emerge as the prisoners return to open society.

We’ll be watching the progress of the lawsuit. So should a lot of other people.

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