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Idaho inmate fraud artist takes plea deal

Idaho inmate fraud artist Mark Brown pleaded guilty today to two federal counts of mail fraud, avoiding a trial on a 12-count federal indictment and agreeing to forfeit $60,000 in proceeds from his scam. Brown also agreed, as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, to forfeit the cherished electric typewriter he used to pull off the unprecedented financial fraud from his Idaho prison cell, which took in big corporations, courts and attorneys around the nation and got hefty checks sent to him in Idaho over a period of several years.

Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush expressed some puzzlement about Brown’s crimes. “How’d you get involved in all this, Mr. Brown?” he asked him. “Just tell me how it got started.” Brown responded with a nervous chuckle, “Um, the idea just popped in my head.”

Quackenbush, who was the chief judge for the Eastern District of Washington until 1995, when he took senior status, responded, “Well, people in custody ordinarily aren’t filing claims. I’ve handled a lot of class actions in my years on this federal bench … and approved a lot of settlements. … How’d you get started in the filing of false claims?”

Brown, 54, said, “Uh, it was my view that if a claim was filed, even if it was false, there was a small percentage chance that it would be paid.” When the judge pressed him as to how he heard about the big class-action legal settlements and bankruptcy and security settlements in which he filed claims, Brown said, “Well, I read the newspapers and watch TV.”

“What newspapers were you reading – the Wall Street Journal?” the judge asked. “Oh, yes,” Brown replied.

The plea agreement could bring Brown a slightly reduced sentence, though that’s not binding on the court; Quackenbush set his sentencing for Nov. 13. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Condemned killer sues state over lack of baloney sandwich lunches on weekends

Condemned double murderer Timonthy Dunlap is suing Idaho state prison officials, contending that the elimination of baloney sandwich lunches on weekends in 2011 constitutes "cruel and unusual" treatment, and that he's lost weight and suffered a heart attack due to low sodium since the change, the Idaho State Journal reports. In documents filed in court, Dunlap offered a solution: "Return to when lunches were served with bologna sandwiches on Saturday and Sunday," the newspaper reported.

Idaho inmates get three meals a day except weekends, when they get a larger breakfast and dinner and a piece of fruit at lunch time. State officials said both the weekday and weekend menus meet the daily caloric requirements for inmates. You can read the State Journal's full report here, or click below for an AP version of the story.

Idaho to look for new company to run private prison, but won’t look at running it itself…

Idaho prison leaders are looking for a new company to run the state's largest prison, the AP reports, after Corrections Corporation of America admitted to understaffing and overbilling for its work operating the Idaho Correctional Center. But the Idaho Department of Correction won't be allowed to submit its own bid or take over operations at the prison south of Boise, because Board of Correction Chairwoman Robin Sandy said that would amount to expanding state government.

The three-member Board of Correction made the decision during a meeting Tuesday evening, opting not to let an automatic two-year extension of CCA's $29.9 million contract kick in when the current contract expires on June 30, 2014. The board also decided that it would consolidate medical services at all the prisons under one statewide medical contract, rather than keeping the medical care services at the Idaho Correctional Center separate. Currently, Corizon provides medical care at every prison in the state except for Idaho Correctional Center, where it is handled by CCA. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho launches criminal justice reform push

Idaho has some of the nation’s lowest crime rates, but its prison population is growing quickly at a time when most states are seeing declines.  So now all three branches of state government in Idaho – from the governor to the Supreme Court to the Legislature – are coming together to launch an intensive new effort to find out what’s going wrong and fix it, with the help of grant funding and aid from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The state qualified for more than a quarter-million dollars in grant funding for the effort, which Gov. Butch Otter unveiled at a news conference in his office today, joined by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick, legislative leaders, top officials from an array of state agencies and representatives of Pew and CSG.     “Criminal justice is taking a larger and larger share of our state budget every year,” Otter said. And despite Idaho’s low crime rates, one of every 34 males is involved in the criminal justice system and one of every 156 females, he said. Plus, 51 percent of those in Idaho’s prisons are repeat offenders. “So what are we not doing while we have them, to prepare them for a life outside of the correctional environment that they end up in?” Otter asked. “What more can we do?”

Other states including Texas, Kansas, South Carolina and more have worked with the same partners on the “justice reinvestment” approach, which involves intensive analysis of data, developing policy options, putting new strategies in place and measuring results. Some states have seen impressive results. Texas estimated that it averted $340 million in operational costs and $1.5 billion in prison construction costs. South Carolina was expecting an increase of 3,000 prison inmates in 2010 and $300 million in increased costs; instead, its prison population dropped.

“We’re going to use every tool we possibly can,” Otter said. That could include changes in sentencing, treatment, education, rehabilitation and more. A broad, multi-agency working group started meeting on the project today, and a legislative interim committee is holding its first meeting this afternoon, chaired by the House and Senate judiciary chairmen, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry. The aim is to develop solutions as soon as possible, including some that could be considered in the legislative session that starts in January of 2014.

Wills, a retired state trooper, said, “It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to bite the bullet, to save money, and to prepare our citizens that need it, that are housed behind those walls, to get out and do something constructive rather than destructive as we’ve seen in the past.”

How he did it: Idaho inmate pulls off major financial fraud from behind bars

It’s clear that Mark Brown is a smart guy, maybe even borderline brilliant. But what’s astounding is the way he apparently pulled off a major, years-long financial fraud, taking in big corporations, courts and attorneys across the nation, all from behind bars in an Idaho prison cell.

Brown had no access to the Internet and appears to have had no accomplices or outside help. Instead, investigators believe he used a cherished electric typewriter that he was allowed to keep in his small, spare cell, and legal ads found in national newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, to make fraudulent claims in big class-action lawsuits and bankruptcies. The story is detailed in my two-part series in The Spokesman-Review’s Sunday and Monday editions; you can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here

Brown is alleged to have typed up professional-looking legal documents, false letters from law firms and more, and made skillful use of the “legal mail” exception for inmates that allows for correspondence with attorneys and judges without review from prison staff. Big checks poured in – Brown’s take in multiparty lawsuits including a $70 million GlaxoSmithKline drug-pricing settlement and a $20 million IBM shareholders’ settlement. Authorities say Brown collected close to $64,000 through those settlements and deposited the money in his prison trust account, which inmates can use for things like commissary purchases. He then transferred much of it out to an investment account that authorities have targeted for potential forfeiture.

The behind-bars operation caught authorities by surprise. “We screen our mail pretty well, but he also was running a pretty good scam here,” said Cpl. Wesley Heckathorn, a guard at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino and former longtime U.S. Navy investigator who helped uncover Brown’s alleged fraud. Brown is now facing a 12-count federal indictment for mail fraud and awaiting a September trial, while authorities at both Idaho’s state prison system and the nation’s largest private prison operator, Corrections Corp. of America, scratch their heads over how he allegedly pulled it off.

Some who know Brown, however, aren’t surprised. “Mark is just so bright,” said Terry Rich, who hired Brown in 1994, when Brown was briefly out on parole, to work at his Boise high-tech firm. “He is so slippery, and he’s so believable, one of the most charming people you’ll meet. … If you let Mark sit around and think too much, this is what happens.” Brown was a promising 23-year-old computer science student at the University of Idaho when he first went to prison with a 20-year sentence for theft; now, he’s 53, still in prison, and never likely to get out.

Idaho inmate suicide reported; third such hanging in a year and a half

The Idaho Department of Correction reports that a 34-year-old inmate apparently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell at the Idaho State Correctional Institution over the weekend. Brandon Munk was found hanging in his cell Saturday at 6:12 p.m.; emergency responders were able to restore his pulse, and he was taken to St. Alphonsus Medical Center, but he died there early Sunday afternoon. Munk was serving a two- to five-year sentence for forgery in Bannock County; he was scheduled to be released in July of 2014. The department has asked the Ada County Sheriff’s Office for assistance in investigating the death.

It was the first suicide reported at an Idaho state prison this year; last year, there were two, one at ISCI and one at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center, and both also by hanging.

Idaho prison bursting with quilt batting; says thanks but please don’t donate more

Overwhelming response to a call for donations to an inmate quilting project has left the Idaho Department of Correction out of storage space and unable to accept new donations of quilting material. “Idaho’s quilters are generous and eager to share their passion for quilting,” says Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke. “We never imagined we’d get buried like this.” The prisons have received more than four pickup truck loads of quilting material. “We are truly grateful for all the help, but we just don’t have a place to store more material,” Reinke said. Click below for the department's full announcement.

AP Newsbreak: Idaho investigates staffing anomalies at private prison

The Idaho State Police has launched an investigation into staffing levels at the state's largest private prison after state officials said they found discrepancies in the prison's monthly reports, reports Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone. The Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise is run by Corrections Corp. of America, which has held the contract for a decade; both the contract and a legal settlement set minimum staffing requirements. Boone reports that Correction Director Brent Reinke told the Idaho Board of Correction this morning that he asked the state police to investigate because the department found "potential anomalies" during an audit; an AP analysis of the prison's records showed some guards apparently working 48 hours straight; double-posting, where one guard is shown as working two different posts at the same time; and vacant security posts.

Click below for Boone's full report.

Former worker sues Idaho Corrections, charges gender discrimination

A former Idaho probation and parole employee is suing the state Department of Correction, charging gender discrminiation and creation of a hostile work environment after her brief relationship with a co-worker turned violent, the AP reports. The lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court; click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Inmates: CCA falsifying staff logs to hide chronic understaffing

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attorneys for inmates at Idaho's largest private prison say Corrections Corporation of America is falsifying staff logs to hide chronic understaffing. The allegation was raised Friday in an amended federal lawsuit. Attorneys for CCA have not yet responded, and a CCA spokesman didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press. Officials with the Idaho Department Correction also didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. CCA operates the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise for the state, and the company was required to increase staffing as part of a settlement ending a different lawsuit in 2011. In the new lawsuit, inmates claim CCA is secretly violating its state contract by listing employees on staff shift logs even if they didn't work that day or only worked a half-hour.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

ACLU says CCA violating 2010 settlement requiring staffing, safety improvements at ICC

The ACLU of Idaho is charging that the Corrections Corp. of America is violating the terms of a settlement agreement it reached with the group in a 2010 lawsuit over prison violence at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, the AP reports, a settlement that required staffing and safety changes at the prison. The charge comes as a new lawsuit from inmates charges that CCA has turned over control of the lockup to prison gangs to save on staffing; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho sends 130 prison inmates to private CCA lockup in Colorado

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Idaho Department of Correction has flown 130 inmates to a prison in Colorado because Idaho's prison don't have enough room to hold the state's growing inmate population. The inmates were flown Tuesday morning on a chartered jet to Denver, and from there they took a bus to the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo. The prison is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Idaho's inmate population reached more than 8,000 for the first time in April. The Department of Correction has been renting beds in county jails to ease the pressure, but that wasn't enough to accommodate the demand. Department Director Brent Reinke says the move is hard on families, but the state is simply out of room.

Idaho women’s prison sees second inmate suicide in two years

An inmate at Idaho's Pocatello Women's Correctional Center apparently committed suicide yesterday; 51-year-old Cindy R. Jones was found hanging in a shower area at the women's prison at 4:38 p.m., and paramedics were unable to resuscitate her. It was the second suicide in two years at the women's prison; the last was in November of 2011. Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said since 2006, seven inmates have committed suicide in Idaho state prison facilities; three more Idaho state prison inmates committed suicide while being held in private prisons or county jails.

Ray said from January 2006 to June 2012, the prison system has had a far higher number of "suicide events," defined as when prison staff place an inmate on suicide watch after the inmate threatens to kill him or herself: There were 3,909 such "events." Said Ray, "All IDOC correctional officers undergo suicide prevention training when they join the department and receive refresher courses annually."

The previous suicide at the women's prison came when Cheryl Ann Spellmeyer, 48, was found unconscious in her cell in 2011 with an apparent self-inflicted ligature mark around her neck; she was serving time for robbery, forgery and DUI in Twin Falls County and would have been eligible for parole less than a year after her death.

Jones was serving up to 20 years in prison for 2nd degree kidnapping, aggravated assault and illegal possession of a weapon in Ada County; she was scheduled to be released on July 22, 2018. The state prison system has asked the Idaho State Police to assist in investigating her death.

Idaho poised to send 450 inmates in next year to private CCA lockup in Colorado

Idaho's state Department of Correction has selected a private prison in Colorado run by Corrections Corp. of America to take overflow Idaho inmates in the next year - and expects to have 450 Idaho inmates there by this time next year. "Idaho's inmate population is 8,099 and has grown by more than 500 inmates since the fiscal year began on July 1, 2011," the department reported in a news release. "Idaho is managing its prisons at capacity and also houses more than 800 inmates in county jails statewide." Click below for the department's full announcement.

Idaho reaches deal to boost prison medical care

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Idaho Department of Correction has agreed to increase staffing and dramatically increase medical care oversight as part of a long-running lawsuit over conditions at a prison south of Boise. The agreement filed with the U.S. District Court in Idaho Tuesday afternoon guarantees that the court will continue to review conditions at the Idaho State Correctional Institution for at least two more years before ending a decades-old lawsuit between inmates and the state. Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke said the agreement represents a significant step forward in the lawsuit, which was filed exactly 31 years ago. The agreement comes after a court-appointed expert made a scathing assessment of the medical care provided to inmates at the prison. The state and its medical contractor, Corizon, have disputed those findings. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Death Row inmates challenge Idaho’s execution procedures

Four Death Row inmates have filed a federal lawsuit over Idaho's new execution procedures, asking a judge to stop all executions until problems in the procedures are addressed. The move comes as Idaho's next execution nears; Richard Leavitt, an eastern Idaho murderer convicted in 1984, is nearing the end of his appeals. In November, Idaho carried out its first execution in 17 years, executing triple murderer Paul Rhoades by lethal injection; it was the state's first execution since 1994 and only its second since 1957.

The four inmates, who include Leavitt along with Thomas Creech, James Hairston and Gene Stuart, contend the new procedures adopted earlier this year give too much power to prison officials, create a risk of severe pain and would allow unqualified workers to carry out medical procedures. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Report: Idaho prison medical care ‘inhumane’

Medical care is so poor at an Idaho state prison that it amounts to neglect and cruel and unusual punishment, the AP reports, according to a report that was unsealed Monday. Correctional health care expert Dr. Marc Stern said there have been some improvements at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise. But terminal and long-term inmates sometimes went unfed, nursing mistakes or failure likely resulted in some deaths, and one inmate wasn't told for seven months that he likely had cancer, reports Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone; click below for her full report.

State fights release of prison report, cites ‘unjustified scandal’

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State prison officials say a report on health care and other conditions at an Idaho prison is so inflammatory that it must remain sealed. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill appointed a correctional health care expert to see if Idaho is complying with a ruling in a long -running lawsuit brought by inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution. Marc Stern's report was filed under seal last month, and the judge ordered attorneys on both sides to review the document to see if any information should be redacted to protect health privacy concerns. Though they agreed no such redactions were needed, the state says the report should be sealed anyway because the public could mistakenly believe it amounted to the opinion of the court, leading to an "unjustified public scandal."

Idaho prisons chief: ‘We do have gangs, and they are a problem’

Brent Reinke, Idaho state prisons chief, as he opened his presentation to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, said Idahoans may be wondering, “What about this violence story? What’s happening here?” He said he’d be glad to speak with any legislator who’s been contacted by constituents with concerns about family members housed at the Idaho Correctional Center, the privately operated state prison south of Boise, where a brutal inmate-on-inmate attack - while guards watched - was shown in a video released by the Associated Press yesterday.

Reinke said he “won’t go into detail today to explain to you all” the issues about the private prison. But, he said, “I’m very confident and very comfortable with our new warden in that facility, and things are progressing. We are doing a much better job of monitoring than we have in the past; we have a new contract.” He added, “In the Department of Corrections, 80 percent of our problems are bought forth by 20 percent of our population. We do have gangs, and they are a problem.”

Idaho private prison has Norovirus outbreak

Idaho’s privately operated prison south of Boise, the Idaho Correctional Center, has confirmed that inmates there have contracted the Norovirus, after a flurry of stomach flu was reported there. The facility has been washed down with bleach and inmates are on lockdown; click below to read the full press release from Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the prison.

Idaho’s first-ever prison rape conviction

Idaho’s state Department of Correction says the case of Cody Vealton Thompson, who was convicted by an Ada County jury Nov. 17 of raping his cellmate and attempting to intimidate a witness, is the first conviction of an inmate for raping another inmate inside an Idaho prison in the 120-year history of the state’s prison system. “This case shows Idaho is serious about eliminating prison rape,” said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke. He said Idaho has been a national leader in implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law passed in 2003. Click below to read the department’s full news release; Thompson faces sentencing Dec. 22.