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CCA: Toss prison lawsuit because inmates didn’t exhaust administrative remedies

The private prison company that runs Idaho's Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise is trying to get a federal lawsuit over violence there dismissed, saying the severely beaten inmates bringing the case didn't exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. The ACLU's attorney said the Corrections Corp. of America was twisting the issues and the lawsuit should proceed; a judge is mulling it now, and will issue a decision in the coming weeks. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Prison: 'Gladiator school' lawsuit should be axed
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A major private prison company is asking a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit over prison violence in Idaho, saying the inmates bringing the case didn't try to solve their problems through administrative channels before they turned to the courts.

Lawyers for Corrections Corporation of America told U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday that the inmates didn't complete the grievance process at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center, so they are barred under federal court rules from suing the company.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the inmates, says the prisoners took all the necessary steps and that Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA failed to fix the problems at the Boise lockup.

The inmates asked for class-action status in the lawsuit earlier this year, saying ICC is so violent that it's known as "gladiator school" and prison workers used inmate-on-inmate violence as a management tool, then refused to provide x-rays to injured prisoners as part of a cover-up scheme. CCA has denied the claims.

Winmill said he'll try to decide whether the case will be dismissed or split up, or whether it will move forward as-is, within the next few weeks.

At issue is the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA, a 1996 federal law that sought to discourage inmates from filing frivolous lawsuits. The act governs judges' actions in inmate rights cases, and in part requires that inmates prove they tried to solve the problem by complaining to prison authorities first.

CCA attorney Dan Struck said the PLRA also bars the main plaintiff in the case, Marlin Riggs, from adding additional inmates to his lawsuit.

If Winmill agrees, the inmates could all be forced to file separate lawsuits, or they could be required to start over under the prison's sometimes lengthy grievance process before filing a new lawsuit seeking class-action status.

"The PLRA doesn't give them any wiggle room here," Struck told the judge. "They chose to cobble this action onto the Riggs case and I'm not sure why."

Besides, Struck said, he believes that only a few of the inmates properly exhausted CCA's grievance procedures before the lawsuit was filed. That would mean the rest of the claims — including complaints that CCA provided inadequate medical care, failed to protect inmates from harm, and that the prison was too crowded to give inmates safe quarters — all must be dismissed.

But Winmill said that may just delay the inevitable.

"Let's be realistic. There is probably more than a 'hypothetical inmate' willing to make those claims," the judge said. "Why is it inappropriate to consolidate cases for trial where common issues are raised?"

Stephen Pevar, the ACLU attorney representing the inmates, said Struck was twisting the issues — and that the inmates only had to broadly raise their concerns through the prison grievance process, not use proper legal terminology and theory to state their cases to prison officials.

For instance, he said one group of inmates called "The Chowhall 5" in court documents satisfied the grievance process for the claim about protection from harm when they complained that CCA set them up to get bad disciplinary reports by allowing them to be beaten by other inmates in the dining area. The Chowhall 5 say they didn't fight back but got bad disciplinary reports for being involved in a fight, and the reports ruined their chances at parole.

Pevar said CCA's interpretation of the PLRA would violate another court rule that allows plaintiffs to amend their lawsuits in some circumstances.

Riggs and the ACLU are suing for $155 million in damages — CCA's entire net profit for 2009.

According to its website, CCA manages about 75,000 inmates in 64 facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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