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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: CCA-run Idaho State Penitentiary a public problem

Idaho is bidding goodbye to the private company that it hired to run its largest prison.

It should add good riddance.

This moment provides Idaho’s political leaders an excellent opportunity to examine the assumptions that first brought Corrections Corporation of America to the state more than 10 years ago: the unshakeable faith in the privatization of public services. Might it have been a mistake, this presumption of excellence and efficiency? Should we expect, from the Idaho politicians who have collected such generous donations from CCA over the years, some soul-searching and rethinking?

We should not. Earlier this year, an effort to have the state make a bid for the prison contract – to simply throw its hat into this seedy little ring – was rejected.

Don’t wanna grow the government, you know.

CCA has run the Boise penitentiary for more than a decade. If a government agency had performed this poorly, someone at a conservative think tank would have called for its drowning. CCA cut staffing to maximize profits, producing the most violent prison in the state: Rates of assault soared higher than in the rest of the state’s prisons, which brought federal investigations and lawsuits alleging that guards used inmate violence and snitch-on-snitch manipulation as a management style.

CCA then, allegedly, falsified staffing reports that showed it was meeting minimum requirements for the number of guards on duty, overstating the hours worked by 4,800 hours. The falsified records included employees supposedly working 24-hour days, 36-hour days, 48-hour days.

The Idaho State Police is investigating those claims. The FBI is investigating other aspects of the CCA prison, though the details are murky. That probe arose after a video was obtained by the Associated Press in 2010 showing CCA guards watching an inmate being beaten for several minutes, refusing to intervene as a single attacker beat another inmate, stopped to rest, then resumed the beating.

On Thursday, CCA announced that it would not bid to renew its $29 million annual contract with Idaho.

Tennessee-based CCA is the nation’s largest private prison company. It calls itself “America’s Leader in Partnership Corrections.” It designs, builds and operates prisons for federal agencies, many states and countries around the world. It also fights off complaints and investigations and lawsuits all over the world, while spending millions on lobbying and campaign donations.

It is the gold standard for prison privatization – fool’s gold. Idaho officials have often been back on their heels in responding to problems with CCA; most significant investigative action has followed public-service digging by the Associated Press.

The story of the videotaped beating from 2010 is an example of that. It was a true horror. It provides the clearest reason you can imagine for why the prison became known among inmates, according to lawsuits, as “gladiator school” – a corrections approach out of “Mad Max.”

And it reveals, nakedly, the company’s ill-formed notions of its responsibility to the public.

The prison video, an overhead shot of a cellblock, was shot Jan. 18, 2010. This account comes from watching the video and reading AP’s written reporting. The video shows an inmate, Hanni Elabed, being beaten by a fellow inmate, James Haver. Elabed had been in protective custody because he had reported drug trafficking to guards. He told them he’d been threatened. He was placed in the cellblock six minutes before Haver attacked him.

Behind the glass of the guard station, at least three correctional officers watched for several minutes without intervening. At one point, Elabed managed to bang on the glass and beg for help, fruitlessly.

At one point, Haver takes a break to rest, sitting in a chair while Elabed lies on the floor. The guards remain in their station. Haver then resumes the attack, kicking Elabed repeatedly. The guards remain in their station. Eventually, Haver stops.

Two minutes later, the guards entered the cellblock. They cuffed Haver and examined Elabed. He was bleeding inside his skull and would be in a coma for three days. CCA later had him moved back to the prison hospital against a doctor’s advice, to save money, Elabed’s family alleges.

Elabed suffered brain damage and memory loss. He eventually had to be released because his medical problems made it impossible to care for him in prison.

When the video was released publicly, CCA said it was “highly disappointed and deeply concerned,” not in its guards, but that the public had been given a chance to see what they had done.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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