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Sara Mayeux

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Latest in Lawsuit Over Idaho’s “Extraordinarily Violent” Private Prison: CCA Asks Judge to Throw Out Suit on Exhaustion Grounds

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In March of this year, the ACLU filed a class action federal lawsuit alleging a pattern of rampant violence in an Idaho prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. The complaint (which can be downloaded here) begins:

ICC is an extraordinarily violent prison. It is known in Idaho as “Gladiator School” for a reason. More violence occurs at ICC than at Idaho’s eight other prisons combined, and the unnecessary carnage and suffering that has resulted is shameful and inexcusable. ICC not only condones prisoner violence, the entrenched culture of ICC promotes, facilitates, and encourages it. Indeed, ICC staff cruelly use prisoner violence as a management tool.

It goes on to describe the “symbiotic relationship [that] exists between certain staff and notoriously violent prisoners,” in which “guards persistently send vulnerable prisoners to live near predatory prisoners, and when these predators commit assaults, they receive mild punishment, and often no punishment.”

This week, CCA lawyers asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not first exhaust their administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. (The PLRA was passed in 1996, ostensibly to block frivolous prisoner lawsuits. Yet, it has been roundly criticized by prisoners’ rights advocates for mounting insurmountable procedural obstacles to meritorious claims.) Note that earlier this year the ACLU reached a separate settlement with the state of Idaho, which agreed to “aggressively oversee compliance” with any federal court order that results from this litigation. Therefore, CCA is the only remaining defendant.

Regardless of what happens next in this lawsuit, the complaint is well worth reading in full — a disgraceful catalog of fractured ribs, broken noses, knocked-out teeth, wired jaws, and other injuries, all imposed by prisoners upon more vulnerable prisoners with impunity for the perpetrators, and often without even the necessary X-rays and medical care for the victims. The allegations at issue in this case have been shocking even to seasoned prisoners’ rights lawyers:

“In my 39 years of suing prisons and jails, I have never confronted a more disgraceful, revolting and inexcusable case of mass abuse and federal rights violations than this one,” said Stephen Pevar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU. “The level of unnecessary human suffering is appalling. Prison officials have utterly failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to protect prisoners from being violently harmed and we must seek court intervention.”

Idaho: 30-Year-Old Federal Lawsuit over Prison Conditions May Be Nearing an End

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In the early 1980s, a federal judge found that “virtually every inmate” assigned to a particular unit of the Idaho state prison had been “brutally raped.” And that was on top of overcrowding, limited access to psychiatric and medical care, inadequate food, lack of warm clothing, and other unconstitutional conditions at the prison. A number of inmate lawsuits were consolidated into one, the so-called “Balla case,” which remains ongoing to this day. (The inmates were initially represented by one of their own, subsequently represented by the ACLU, and are currently represented by the Western regional law firm Stoel Rives.) Now, as the AP reports, U.S. district court judge Lynn Winmill will soon decide whether to discontinue the component of the lawsuit addressing violence and health care. Although overcrowding remains a problem, Judge Winmill suggests that it may be better addressed by new lawsuits.

The invaluable Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a website of the University of Michigan law school, provides a summary of the litigation complete with copies of the filings. The clearinghouse notes that at least one result of the ongoing litigation has been to fuel privatization of Idaho’s prison complex:

In response to the decision, Idaho prison officials transferred more than 300 prisoners to a Corrections Corporation of America prison in Appleton, Minnesota, at a cost of $1.1 million. According to news reports, prison officials plan to ask the state legislature for $160 million to construct three new prisons, and for an additional $7.9 million to cover the cost of housing overflow prisoners both out-of-state and in county jail cells.

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