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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Company that operated Idaho prison violated inmates’ rights, but no need to pay

In this June 15, 2010, file photo, the Idaho Correctional Center, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, is show, south of Boise. (Charlie Litchfield / Associated Press)
By Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – A federal jury says private prison company CoreCivic had a long-standing custom of understaffing an Idaho prison, and that the company was deliberately indifferent to the risk of serious harm that posed to inmates.

But jurors also found that the company, formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, doesn’t have to pay damages for the problem because the inmates who sued failed to prove that the understaffing happened in the hours before they were attacked by a prison gang.

The jury deliberated for several hours before handing down the verdict late Thursday evening in a Boise courtroom. Afterward, attorneys on both sides of the case claimed a victory of sorts.

The inmates brought the lawsuit in 2012, contending that CCA deliberately understaffed the prison in order to boost profits, and that the understaffing created conditions that allowed a prison gang to hide in a janitorial closet for several hours before jumping out to beat and stab the inmates.

During closing arguments Thursday morning, the inmates’ attorney, T.J. Angstman, reminded the jurors that before the inmates were attacked, CCA had already been in hot water several times for understaffing yet hadn’t fixed the problem. The state of Idaho had previously found the company in violation of its $29 million annual contract for understaffing, he noted, and in a separate lawsuit a federal judge found the company guilty of understaffing the prison. Later, CCA was found to be in contempt of court for violating a settlement agreement in the case that called for additional staffers at the prison.

Still, Angstman said, neither the state of Idaho, nor a federal judge, nor a contempt of court order was able to force CCA to staff its prison correctly. Only the company’s shareholders have that power, he said, and they’ll only make a change if understaffing starts to hurt their bottom line.

“Nobody else is left to make them stop,” Angstman said. “And you heard the CEO say he was proud of the work they did here in Idaho. You know why he was proud? Because he took those profits home to his shareholders.”

Last year, the company made nearly $220 million in profit – more than $600,000 a day.

“Is a million dollars enough to punish CCA to deter this conduct? Or is that just the cost of doing business for them? You decide – a million dollars is less than two days of their profits last year,” Angstman said.

CCA’s attorney Dan Struck countered that the prison actually had more staffers working than were contractually required on the day before and the day of the attack. He said Angstman’s case was built on assumptions and red herrings.

“He dragged the CEO, Damon Hininger, across the country to testify about phone calls,” Struck said, referring to the inmates’ attorney. “And what did we learn? That they tried to stay within the budget. Well, who doesn’t?”

Struck suggested the inmates and their attorney could have filed a lawsuit alleging negligence and won. But instead, he contended, they tried to show that their constitutional rights were violated, a much harder case to prove. He told jurors Angstman was likely motivated by the idea of a big financial win.

“We know that the staffing was appropriate. We know that there are policies and procedures in place and officers are trained,” Struck told the jurors. “Those are the reasonable measures that are taken to protect them (the inmates).”

On the four-verdict form, the jury answered the first two questions in favor of the inmates, answering “yes” to questions that asked if CCA had violated inmates’ Eighth Amendments rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by being deliberately indifferent to the serious risk posed by the company’s long-standing practice of understaffing the Idaho Correctional Center.

But they also found that the practice of understaffing didn’t deprive the inmates of their Eighth Amendment rights on May 4 and May 5, 2012 – the days surrounding the attack.

After the verdict was read, Struck said he appreciated the jury’s work on the case.

“The verdict is absolutely correct,” he said. “They didn’t prove causation, and the jury got it.”

Angstman, the inmates’ attorney, said he was still trying to understand the jury’s decision not to award damages, but was pleased that they found the rights of his clients were violated.