June 9, 2005 in Idaho

Judge ponders too-full prison

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho’s main state prison is so overcrowded that it is violating inmates’ basic constitutional rights, and the state should immediately be ordered to start shipping prisoners out of state to relieve the crowding, lawyers for inmates in a class-action suit argued Wednesday in federal court.

A court-appointed expert, former longtime Washington Department of Corrections chief Chase Riveland, agreed in a report to the court that doubling up inmates in three housing units at the prison would create the same “intolerable” conditions that the court cited in 1987 when it imposed population caps on four units there. Since Riveland completed his report in January, the state has gone ahead with double-bunking all four units, exceeding those caps by up to 200 inmates.

“It’s true my clients are in prison and not entitled to comforts,” Boise attorney Walt Sinclair told the court. “We’re not talking about comforts – we’re talking about minimum human decency.”

Sinclair said inmates have trouble getting access to toilets and showers, live in tiny, cramped spaces, get very limited food, and have decreasing access to programming and prison jobs. Riveland’s report also cited strains on medical services, maintenance, food service, laundry, plumbing and more due to crowding.

Deputy Attorney General Paul Panther said things aren’t so bad at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, which now has more than 1,300 inmates – up from 750 in 1987. “Overcrowding per se does not violate the 8th Amendment,” Panther told the court. “Mr. Riveland opined that conditions under double-celling would likely increase the level of violence – the facts are that the level of violence has not increased.”

In fact, Idaho’s large medium-security prison south of Boise has “extremely low” rates of assaults by inmates on staff and relatively low numbers of inmate-on-inmate assaults and formal inmate grievances filed, Riveland said in his report. He also cited an inmate classification system as a major improvement, making sure inmates are assigned to the appropriate custody level.

“It’s speculation about potential future violations,” Panther said.

Panther said the state plans to build additional showers on the four double-bunked housing units and already has committed funding for that project. “There is no constitutional right to a daily shower,” he said, adding that inmates simply have to wait sometimes for showers, and sometimes find the hot water has run out. He said that’s no different than the situation faced by anyone with teenagers at home.

He said prison officials also have added additional telephones and microwaves to the housing tiers and have increased visiting hours by two hours a day. New security cameras have been installed, and evening vocational and GED preparation classes have been added.

Pam Sonnen, administrator of operations for Idaho’s prison system, said the ISCI has changed in many ways since the lawsuit started. “Back in the early ‘80s … it was a very violent place,” she said. “Since Max was built in 1989, we’ve had very little problems at ISCI.”

When the case started through the federal court system, Idaho’s maximum-security inmates, death row inmates, mentally ill offenders and others all were housed at ISCI along with the medium-security prisoners. Those inmates have all been moved into the Idaho Maximum Security Prison next door.

Sonnen acknowledged that an inmate at ISCI was assaulted by other inmates two weeks ago in what at first appeared to be a stabbing but later was discovered to be injuries sustained from being beaten against a metal pole. Also, this week, a 38-year-old inmate serving a 15- to 30-year sentence for burglary and rape committed suicide by cutting his wrist on a shower.

“You do have those kinds of problems because you have 1,300 guys all in the same facility,” Sonnen said. “But if you look at other huge, medium-security prisons around the U.S., Idaho has the least amount of problems.”

She denied Sinclair’s contention that inmates sometimes have to wait an hour or more to use a toilet. “I’ve never heard of an inmate ever not being able to go to the bathroom at the time they want, and I have not seen a concern form about it,” she said.

Visiting Federal District Judge James M. Fitzgerald said he’d take the arguments under advisement and rule soon. When the attorneys clashed over the appropriateness of affidavits from prison employees and inmates offering differing views, Fitzgerald said his main concern is the 1987 injunction and Riveland’s new expert report.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mr. Riveland does qualify as an expert,” he said. “So I’m more concerned with the report of the expert than I am with any other materials that have been filed.”

Sinclair said, “They’ve fixed a few things. … Well I hope they have – they’ve had 17 years to fix those things.”

Both sides said Idaho prison officials are trying to do a good job but don’t have the funding from the state Legislature to do more.

“They’re going to have to ship inmates out of state,” Sinclair said, despite the cost of such a move. “It’s not a great option, but it’s the only constitutional option that exists at this time.”

All Idaho prisons are full, and county jail beds are 80 percent full, Sonnen said, and couldn’t take the overflow if the court decided to enforce the population caps at ISCI. Idaho is currently housing some of its minimum-security inmates in tents.

Said Sinclair, “Riveland says there’s little change in the conditions out there, other than the facilities are 17 years older.”

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