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Judge Warns Private Prison Operator's Witnesses Of Criminal Probe

Gavel, Courts, Justice
Flickr Creative Commons

A federal judge sharply questioned a top official with Corrections Corporation of America over how much money the private prison company should pay back the state of Idaho after failing to meet minimum staffing requirements at a Boise-area prison for several months in 2012.

The comments from U.S. District Judge David Carter came Wednesday during a contempt of court hearing over whether CCA is abiding by the terms of a settlement agreement it reached with inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center in 2011.

The inmates, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho sued in 2010, contending the prison run by Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA was so violent that prisoners call it "Gladiator School."

CCA denied the allegations but reached a deal requiring widespread operating changes including increased staffing. CCA has acknowledged understaffing the mandatory minimum posts at the prison by 4,800 hours during seven months in 2012.

But Scott Craddock, CCA's top ethics officer, said on the witness stand Wednesday that those hours only accounted for understaffing that occurred during the night shift, and that CCA didn't fully investigate the number of hours that were understaffed during the day shift.

A partial review showed at least 152 hours unstaffed in May and another 300 in June, Craddock said.

"As I understand it, CCA has represented they're going to pay back IDOC. What amount should they pay them?" the judge asked Craddock.

"Let's add together," he said, "4800 hours, plus 152, plus 300, what is that? ... And we don't know what the day shift for gosh, July, August, September, October, November, we don't know that, do we? So 4800 hours is kind of a pretty low number, isn't it?"

"We reported what we did a detailed report on," Craddock said, saying they based the estimate on the period they investigated, which was the night shift for seven months.

ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar said he would show evidence that CCA violated the court's order by failing to fill thousands of hours of security posts, that the company tried to cover up the understaffing by filing false documents with the state, that CCA deliberately avoided learning who was responsible for the problems, and that despite learning of the staffing problems more than a year ago, the understaffing continues to this day.

Pevar said the understaffing problems occurred because there was "inadequate supervision by the warden. Someone was asleep at the wheel."

CCA's attorney Daniel Struck said hiring and retaining qualified correctional officers is a problem at prisons of all sorts, nationwide.

CCA's management team at the Idaho Correctional Center did what it could to try to keep the mandatory posts filled, Struck said, and even hired more staffers than were required under the contract to meet the terms of the court settlement.

"The evidence shows there's always going to be challenges in filling mandatory posts," Struck said. He said the company implemented a plan to make sure the vacancies don't happen again, and that there were no increases in inmate assaults as a result of the understaffing.

"As a result there is no reason to punish CCA for taking the actions that they did," Struck said.

Kevin Myers, a regional managing director of operations for CCA, testified the company offered to pay the Idaho Department of Correction $117,000 to cover the understaffed hours. That amounts to about $24.37 an hour.

Myers didn't say what IDOC's response was. The company is paid $29 million a year by Idaho under its state contract.

IDOC spokesman Jeff Ray says the department declined the offer because officials are waiting for the results of an Idaho state police investigation into the understaffing.