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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

ACLU seeking to ban Idaho prison practices

Jessie L. Bonner Associated Press

BOISE – The American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday that practices at an Idaho prison that include guards opening the wrong cell doors and allowing inmate-on-inmate attacks have caused violence at the facility and should be immediately banned.

The ACLU also said in a motion filed Thursday in U.S. District Court that victims of the assaults at the Idaho Correctional Center are routinely written up for defending themselves during the attacks, a consequence that can jeopardize their eligibility for parole and access to treatment and education programs.

Attorneys for the ACLU are seeking a preliminary injunction on behalf of inmates to immediately ban both practices at the prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America.

“We want to try to eliminate as much suffering as quickly as we can; these two issues lent themselves to that,” said Steven Pevar, an attorney for the ACLU.

The ACLU is representing inmates who sued CCA in March, saying the Idaho lockup is so violent 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. Company spokesman Steve Owen declined to comment on the latest legal filing, saying lawyers would respond to the claims in court documents.

The motion seeks to block the prison from issuing disciplinary reports to inmates who are acting in self-defense and calls for an investigation into claims that the guards are opening the wrong cell doors.

“The first thing you have to do is find out what the problem is,” Pevar said. “Is it a mechanical problem, or are people just being careless?”

Since July 2009, 13 assaults have resulted from prison guards opening, or “popping,” the wrong cell doors in areas where violent prisoners are kept, allowing inmates to attack other prisoners, attorneys for the ACLU say in a brief.

Guards either mistakenly or deliberately opened the wrong doors and allowed the assaults, the ACLU says.

Four of the 13 of the assaults allowed because of “popping” cell doors occurred under warden Timothy Wengler, who has been with the private prison company since 1996 and was appointed interim warden at the Idaho facility after the ACLU sued over claims of brutal inmate-on-inmate violence, ACLU attorneys say.

Former Idaho warden Phillip Valdez was reassigned after the lawsuit was filed.

Attorneys for the ACLU claim in court documents that Valdez created the two policies they are seeking to ban, and that Wengler continues to implement them as interim warden.

“One of two things must be true: Valdez and Wengler either failed in their duty to investigate the causes of these incidents, or they failed in their duty to fashion an appropriate solution,” the ACLU says.

The most violent of the “popped” cell door assaults occurred on Aug. 10, when a guard opened some 20 doors and released at least 20 prisoners who then assaulted four rival gang members, sending two to the hospital, according to the brief filed by ACLU attorneys.

Guards issued disciplinary reports for the four victims of the assault, according to the ACLU.