CCA-run prison remains Idaho's most violent lockup

October 9, 2011 - 8:15 PM
Private Prison Violence

FILE - In a file frame grab from video obtained by The Associated Press, an inmate attacks fellow inmate Hanni Elabed at the privately-run Idaho Correctional Center just south of Boise, Idaho. The Corrections Corp. of America-run Idaho Correctional Center remains the most violent lockup in Idaho. Records obtained by The Associated Press show that while ICC only has about 23 percent more inmates than the next largest prison, it had more than three times the number of reported inmate-on-inmate assaults last year. (AP Photo, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — In the last four years, Idaho's largest privately run prison has faced federal lawsuits, widespread public scrutiny, increased state oversight, changes in upper management and even an ongoing FBI investigation.

Yet the Corrections Corp. of America-run Idaho Correctional Center remains the most violent lockup in Idaho.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show that while the assault rate improved somewhat in the four-year period examined, ICC inmates are still more than twice as likely to be assaulted as those at other Idaho prisons.

Between September 2007 and September 2008, both ICC and the state-run Idaho State Correctional Institution were medium-security prisons with roughly 1,500 inmates each. But during that 12-month span, ICC had 132 inmate-on-inmate assaults, compared to just 42 at ISCI. In 2008, ICC had more assaults than all other Idaho prisons combined.

By 2010, both prisons had grown with 2,080 inmates at ICC and 1,688 inmates at ISCI. Records collected by the AP showed that there were 118 inmate-on-inmate assaults at ICC compared to 38 at ISCI. And again last year, ICC had more assaults than all the other prisons combined.

Shannon Cluney, who was the head of the Idaho Department of Correction's virtual prison program until he was recently promoted to be the warden of the South Boise Women's Correctional Center, said the AP's numbers for assaults at the private prison were actually low: The Virtual Prisons Program investigated 141 inmate-on-inmate assaults at ICC during 2010. The discrepancy, Cluney said, could be because the AP examined specific records that are supposed to be generated with each assault, while his department also investigated assaults that were reported late and didn't have the record.

Still, Cluney said he's seen marked improvement at ICC.

"I think — when I look at the fact that more incidences are reported anonymously, and I look at the increase in the offender population, and I look at the types or severity of the incidences — that there has been an improvement," Cluney said. "Is there room for more? Absolutely."

All calls to ICC officials were referred to CCA spokesman Steve Owen, who emailed a statement saying CCA officials were proud of their work at the Idaho Correctional Center, and that CCA employees are committed to enhancing safety. He said ICC's new warden, Timothy Wengler, has increased efforts to prevent assaults at the lockup.

"Safety and security for the public, our employees, and the inmates entrusted to our care is our top priority," Owen said.

Cluney said the fact that inmates at the private prison are more likely to report assaults now shows they feel safer and are less afraid of reprisals. The severity of the assaults at the prison has also dropped, he said, with fewer attacks involving weapons, serious injuries or groups of offenders.

In 2008, state officials said, ICC had a violence rate three times higher than other prisons because of gangs, and they said action was taken to identify and separate gang members from their enemies. The following year, the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults at ICC remained largely unchanged, despite months of concern from lawmakers and state correction officials.

Since then, in 2009 and 2010, several ICC inmates sued in federal court, with so many of the lawsuits making similar allegations about rampant violence that a judge decided to combine them all into one potential class-action case.

That case was eventually split into two: One lawsuit from inmate Marlin Riggs, who was asking for $55 million in damages after he was severely beaten in what he said was a preventable attack, and the other from inmates who were asking only for changes in the way the prison is run. CCA settled both lawsuits last month, agreeing to increase staffing and make other changes at ICC and reaching a sealed agreement with Riggs.

Also, the Idaho Department of Correction stopped housing inmates in out-of-state prisons, allowing three state contract monitors to focus full-time on whether CCA is running the prison in accordance with its Idaho contract. The monitors spend about 75 percent of their time at the prison.

And in another development, CCA transferred former warden Phillip Valdez and former deputy warden Dan Prado to other private prisons, and appointed warden Timothy Wengler to run ICC in 2010.

An investigation was launched by the Justice Department and the FBI into several inmate-on-inmate attacks at the prison, including one on Hanni Elabed, who was beaten unconscious and stomped by an attacker for several minutes while guards watched, according to records. Elabed was left with permanent brain damage from the attack. The investigation is ongoing.

During this period, Idaho renewed CCA's contract to run the prison, approving 628 more beds and substantially boosting the number of inmates kept there.

Cluney said the state's new contract with CCA, which went into effect in 2009, really helped the Idaho Department of Correction by requiring that CCA follow more IDOC policies. That gave IDOC authority to more closely monitor events at the lockup.

"We are looking at every single incident in the last year and a half," Cluney said. The department is looking to see "whether the response to the each incident was appropriate, whether the medical follow-up to the incident was appropriate and complete, and if any corrective action was needed, that CCA workers identify and take the appropriate action."

But IDOC officials say ultimately, there's only so much the department can do. That's where the new settlement between CCA and the inmates will help, said IDOC Director Brent Reinke.

"We need to see what's happening behind the fence when we're there and when we're not there," Reinke said. "We have three monitors now. We could have six there and not see everything."

Because of the settlement, "I think we should see the level of violence plateau and even reduce a little bit" in the coming year, Reinke said.