BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The nation's largest private prison company is being held in contempt of court by a federal judge for chronic understaffing at an Idaho prison.
U.S. District Judge David Carter made the ruling against the Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America in a scathing 24-page ruling issued Monday. In it, Carter took the company to task for lying about staffing levels and warned that he would make the fines as big as needed to force CCA's compliance with a settlement agreement it reached two years ago with Idaho inmates and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"If a prospective fine leads to $2.4 million in penalties, CCA has no one to blame but itself," Carter wrote.
The contempt finding stems from a case that began in 2010 when the ACLU sued on behalf of inmates at the prison south of Boise, contending that the facility was so violent that prisoners called it "Gladiator School" and that understaffing and mismanagement contributed to the problem.
CCA denied the allegations, but reached a settlement agreement with the inmates, promising to increase staffing levels above what was then required under its $29 million contract with the Idaho Department of Correction. That settlement agreement was slated 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 earlier this month, 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."
From now on, any mandatory post left unstaffed for more than 12 hours in a month will bring fines of $100 an hour, Carter wrote. He warned that he would raise the fine to $500 an hour — or higher — if things don't change.
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.
From now on, the court will get staffing reports from an independent monitor who will watch staffing levels at the prison and report directly to the federal courts, Carter said. He said he wouldn't make CCA do an audit to determine just how many hours have been understaffed in the last few years because the Idaho Department of Correction already has such an audit underway.
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 state contract.
"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.
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."