BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge says he will decide soon if Corrections Corporation of America should be held in contempt of court for violating a settlement agreement it had with inmates at an Idaho prison requiring the company to increase staffing.
U.S. District Judge David Carter told attorneys for both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nashville, Tenn.-based private prison company that he planned to review the evidence immediately while it was still fresh in his mind from the hearing.
The hearing was requested by the ACLU of Idaho, which is representing inmates at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center. The inmates sued CCA in 2010, saying the facility was so violent prisoners called it "Gladiator School." CCA denied the allegations but reached a settlement the following year that required widespread changes at the prison, including increased staffing.
The company earlier this year acknowledged it understaffed mandatory minimum posts by 4,800 hours over seven months in 2012. On Wednesday, company officials said that understaffing was during night shifts, and the company didn't investigate day shift patterns.
The settlement agreement was originally set to expire on Sept. 16. But the ACLU wants the judge to extend the agreement — and thus, oversight of the court. The ACLU says the company is still not meeting minimum staffing required under both the settlement and its $29 million contract with the Idaho Department of Correction.
CCA's attorney, Dan Struck, told the judge in closing arguments Thursday evening that CCA has taken meaningful and effective steps to resolve the matter and had already agreed to extend the settlement agreement, but the ACLU's attorney, Stephen Pevar, refused.
"Before we spent thousands of dollars in the last two weeks litigating this issue, CCA offered to extend the settlement. CCA offered to hire Bill Collins to investigate the staffing issue. CCA offered to pay costs associated with filing this action," Struck said. "Mr. Pevar said no. He wanted a public display and to put CCA in stocks and embarrass CCA."
Several CCA officials testified about the steps the company had taken to investigate the staffing problems, and said the staffing reports were falsified without the Idaho warden or his supervisors ever suspecting the problem.
Regional director Kevin Myers said the monthly salary budgets seemed to be about normal and didn't raise any red flags to investigate during the understaffed period. When the problem was discovered — during a separate company investigation into another employee matter — CCA officials immediately launched an investigation and turned their findings over to the Idaho Department of Correction, CCA's ethics officer Scott Craddock said.
Former ICC warden Tim Wengler noted that assaults went down dramatically over his four-year tenure at the prison, with no inmates needing to be taken for medical treatment offsite because of assaults during his last three years. Wengler stepped down from the post in May.
"When they heard about the problem they immediately instituted an investigation," Struck told the judge in his closing arguments. "They let Idaho know what was going on, they let them know they were doing an investigation, and they hired an excellent firm out of Tennessee ... to investigate something that's very difficult to try and unravel."
The point of the settlement agreement was to reduce violence at the prison — a goal CCA achieved, Struck said.
"CCA took the time, took reasonable steps. They hired more staff. They conducted more training," he said. "... And they reduced the violence at the facility and they reduced the severity of violence at the facility."
Pevar, the ACLU's attorney, told the judge he thinks CCA is avoiding taking the steps to fix understaffing for good.
"CCA did the easy part. It investigated the number of hours and then it stopped. It never asked the question, and it still hasn't asked the question, "Who is responsible?" Pevar said. "I submit the reason they're not asking that question is because they know what the answer is. It would look horrible if CCA were to terminate one of their own wardens."
He noted that the company was still having trouble filling the mandatory positions, with posts left unfilled as recently as two weeks ago.
"When people do bad things, they're punished. My clients have been punished," Pevar said of the inmates who brought the lawsuit. "CCA has done a bad thing and they're not even acknowledging it to this day."
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company is working to ensure the staffing problems never happen again, and that CCA "is fully committed to making taxpayers whole for any unverified hours." He said safety of inmates and staffers is a top priority for the company.