The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Idaho's largest prison--the privately run Idaho Correctional Center--alleging a culture of violence that is accepted and even encouraged by guards, forcing inmates to live in fear.
"Prison isn't supposed to be a violent place," said lead ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar. "There are many prisons that aren't nearly as violent as this one ... If ICC cannot very quickly improve things, those prisoners have to be taken out of there."
The lawsuit details 23 assaults at ICC since November 2006. The ACLU claims that all of them were preventable, but that guards, through deliberate indifference, failed to protect the inmates.
But ICC, which is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison contractor in the country, has been known as Idaho's most violent prison for more than two years. A 2008 Associated Press investigation revealed that the assault rate there was three times higher than at other state prisons. At the time, legislators voiced concern for the levels of violence at ICC, but a follow-up report a year later by AP reporter Rebecca Boone revealed that, despite several investigations, the number of assaults at ICC had decreased only slightly to almost nine per month.
In the last year, ICC reported 231 offender-on-offender assaults, compared to 89 at the next largest prison, the Idaho State Correctional Institution, according to Idaho Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Ray.
Ray declined comment on the ACLU lawsuit, as did Steve Owen, director of marketing for CCA, who wrote in an e-mail that the prison is safe and monitored by IDOC.
Starting in January 2008, IDOC officials cited concerns that CCA was not fully investigating reports of inmate violence, was not reporting crimes committed in the facility and was not holding perpetrators of violence accountable, the AP reported a year ago. IDOC officials also indicated the number of assaults may be triple what CCA was reporting.
Meanwhile, CCA faces numerous lawsuits at prisons across the country and is at the center of a spate of in-custody deaths at privately-run immigration detention centers. There were nine deaths at one Arizona detention facility, The New York Times reported in January.
CCA general council Gus Puryear told an attorneys' trade magazine in 2005 that at any given time, there are 700 to 1,100 claims pending against the company.
Pevar said he is aware that CCA faces lawsuits in other states, but that he is seeking class-action relief only for the prisoners in Idaho. According to the lawsuit, ICC is widely known as "gladiator school" for the number of violent prisoners who are given latitude to commit assaults.
The term "gladiator school" has been applied to violent prisons for years, including the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., in the '70s and early '80s. But an inmate at a CCA-run prison in Nashville, Tenn., recently bragged to a judge that he acted as a "gladiator" there, beating up other inmates at the behest of CCA guards, according to chattanoogan.com.
Relatives of inmates have also been concerned about violence at ICC for about two years; it was the impetus for the creation of a new blog in January, Idaho Prison Watch.
"I've been hearing about the 'beat down' of inmates by other inmates for over two years now. We also know how apathetic and/or vicious some of the [correctional officers] have been. We assumed that nothing was being done as far as investigations," said Connie Molen, who runs the blog. "There are more than a few of us that are breathing a sigh of relief. Now we hope the ACLU will continue to carry the ball all the way to the end."