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Idaho private prison case documents unsealed

Affidavits say issues were well-known

BOISE – Several documents unsealed in a contempt of court case against private prison company Corrections Corporation of America detail inmate allegations that CCA understaffed an Idaho prison in violation of a court order and a state contract.

Among the documents, unsealed in a lawsuit between Idaho Correctional Center inmates and CCA on Friday, were affidavits from two current CCA employees and one former employee. All three described what they said was a well-known understaffing problem that prison officials routinely tried to hide.

CCA has acknowledged that its employees filed reports with the state that falsely showed 4,800 hours of vacant security posts as being staffed during 2012. The company says it has taken steps to fix the problems and that it will make taxpayers whole for any unverified hours.

Inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center and the American Civil Liberties Union say that number grossly underestimates the understaffing, and that problems continue today.

The affidavits were filed under seal earlier this year in connection with a lawsuit brought in 2010 by the ACLU and some ICC inmates who said the prison was so violent that 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.

That settlement agreement was originally set to expire in September – ending any court oversight of the prison’s operations – but the ACLU asked U.S. District Judge David Carter to extend the agreement and find CCA in contempt for failing to abide by the settlement terms.

CCA asked the judge to keep many of the documents sealed in the case because of security and privacy concerns. But Carter said he believed it was important to keep the case open to the public, and that Idaho taxpayers have an interest because they pay CCA $29 million a year to run the facility. Instead, the judge allowed limited redactions to protect security concerns at the prison.

A group of newspapers, including The Spokesman-Review, and one television station won an earlier legal request to make court documents in the case open to public inspection.

Susan Fry, a correctional counselor for CCA who has worked at the prison since 2002, wrote in her sworn affidavit that it’s been the practice to falsify staffing logs at the prison for years.

Fry, who is on medical leave, said in the documents that whichever employee was in charge of filling out the staffing report for the day would cover any vacancies by filling in blank spaces with the names of employees – even if they weren’t working that day.

“In addition to falsifying staff rosters virtually every day, ICC also falsifies the logs that show when prisoners were given pat-down searches. On many occasions, I was told to sign a document acknowledging a pat-down search that I supposedly witnessed that I hadn’t witnessed,” Fry said. She said she complained to the unit manager, but nothing was done.

Annette Mullen, a correctional counselor who worked at CCA from 2008 until she resigned in January, said guards were forced to barter with known gang member inmates over who was allowed to live in “their” unit because there wasn’t enough staff to properly manage the unit. In exchange for good behavior or reduced assaults, Mullen said, correctional officers would promise to dismiss inmates’ disciplinary reports or give the inmates extra time in the dayroom areas.

Mullen said she personally notified the wardens and other supervisors of the understaffing and false logs, to no avail. CCA, meanwhile, has maintained that wardens and other upper management officials knew nothing of the staffing problems and false logs, and that once they got wind of the problem, they launched an immediate investigation and notified the Idaho Department of Correction.

Jaune Sonnier, a CCA addictions treatment counselor who has worked at the prison since 2010, said in her sworn affidavit that she frequently goes weeks at a time without seeing any security-trained correctional officers inside her unit.

She said upper administrative staff members also routinely signed “passdown” logs showing that they had checked security conditions in the her unit without ever actually checking. Metal detectors were frequently unstaffed, she said, allowing inmates to bring contraband through without being checked.