Prison: ‘Gladiator school’ lawsuit should be axed

A major private prison company is asking a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit over prison violence in Idaho, saying the inmates bringing the case didn’t try to solve their problems through administrative channels before they turned to the courts.

Lawyers for Corrections Corporation of America told U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday that the inmates didn’t complete the grievance process at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center, so they are barred under federal court rules from suing the company.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the inmates, says the prisoners took all the necessary steps and that Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA failed to fix the problems at the Boise lockup.

The inmates asked for class-action status in the lawsuit earlier this year, saying ICC is so violent that 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.

Winmill said he’ll try to decide whether the case will be dismissed or split up, or whether it will move forward as-is, within the next few weeks.

At issue is the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA, a 1996 federal law that sought to discourage inmates from filing frivolous lawsuits. The act governs judges’ actions in inmate rights cases, and in part requires that inmates prove they tried to solve the problem by complaining to prison authorities first.

CCA attorney Dan Struck said the PLRA also bars the main plaintiff in the case, Marlin Riggs, from adding additional inmates to his lawsuit.

If Winmill agrees, the inmates could all be forced to file separate lawsuits, or they could be required to start over under the prison’s sometimes lengthy grievance process before filing a new lawsuit seeking class-action status.

“The PLRA doesn’t give them any wiggle room here,” Struck told the judge. “They chose to cobble this action onto the Riggs case and I’m not sure why.”

Besides, Struck said, he believes that only a few of the inmates properly exhausted CCA’s grievance procedures before the lawsuit was filed. That would mean the rest of the claims — including complaints that CCA provided inadequate medical care, failed to protect inmates from harm, and that the prison was too crowded to give inmates safe quarters — all must be dismissed.

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Fed. court: ‘Gladiator prison’ suit can continue

By REBECCA BOONE – Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge says a prison violence lawsuit brought by 24 Idaho inmates against Corrections Corporation of America can move forward in court.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill says he can find no reason to prevent former Idaho Correctional Center inmate Marlin Riggs from modifying his lawsuit to seek class-action status and add additional plaintiffs.

Riggs sued the Nashville, Tenn., company last year, and in March several more inmates joined him. The group says the prison is so violent it’s called “gladiator school.” But CCA asked the court to reject the amended lawsuit, saying Riggs should go it alone in court and the rest of the inmates should file a new lawsuit.

Winmill turned down the request, saying it was more efficient to deal with the claims together.

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ACLU Lawsuit Charges Idaho Prison Officials Promote Rampant Violence

March 11, 2010

Deliberate Indifference And Longstanding Culture Of Brutality Lead To Epidemic Violence At Privately-Run Idaho Correctional Center

BOISE, ID – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Idaho today filed a class action federal lawsuit charging that officials at the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC) promote and facilitate a culture of rampant violence that has led to carnage and suffering among prisoners at the state-owned facility operated by the for-profit company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, the lawsuit charges that epidemic violence at the facility is the direct result of, among other things, ICC officials turning a blind eye to the brutality, a prison culture that relies on the degradation, humiliation and subjugation of prisoners, a failure to discipline guards who intentionally arrange assaults and a reliance on violence as a management tool.

“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.”

According to the lawsuit, a deeply entrenched culture of brutality has resulted in higher levels of violence at ICC than at Idaho’s eight other prisons combined. The lawsuit highlights 24 different cases of assault that have occurred at ICC since November 2006, all of which were entirely preventable and the direct result of failures by ICC officials to protect prisoners despite being placed on notice that these prisoners faced a substantial risk of serious harm. The cases highlighted in the lawsuit are not exhaustive, but instead are merely representative of the scores of additional assaults that have occurred at ICC during the past four years.

The cases of prisoner-on-prisoner violence highlighted in the lawsuit include a prisoner who was hit in his ear so hard that it partially detached from the side of his head, a prisoner who, in anticipation of being brutally assaulted, removed his eyeglasses to protect them prior to receiving a pummeling, a prisoner who was beaten so badly that his teeth were pushed through his lower lip causing effusive bleeding that took an officer more than two hours to clean up, a prisoner who required eight screws to put his jaw back into place after being savagely beaten in the face and a prisoner whose requests for X-rays on the heels of being beaten were met by laughter from a prison guard who callously informed him there was no need for x-rays since his nose was so obviously broken.

Marlin Riggs, one of six named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, entered ICC in May 2008 and was targeted by a group of prisoners he believed were associated with a gang that prison officials knew had a history of threatening and extorting money from other prisoners. Despite his pleas, prison officials refused to move Riggs to a safer living area and he was violently assaulted and left lying in a pool of his own blood with a broken nose and a crushed cheekbone.

“The levels of violence and gross indifference of staff are shameful,” said Monica Hopkins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Idaho. “People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The administrators of ICC are ignoring their constitutional duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.”

The lawsuit also claims that guards at ICC, in an effort to shield themselves from any complaints of misconduct for having set up many of the assaults, file disciplinary charges against victims. The Commission of Pardons and Parole then has used these fabricated charges as grounds to deny parole to a number of prisoners, including Riggs, creating additional unfair punishment.

Among other things, the lawsuit seeks a court order setting strict deadlines by which ICC must develop and implement adequate policies, as well as hire and train a sufficient number of guards, to safeguard prisoners from assault. The lawsuit argues that if ICC officials continue to ignore their constitutional obligation to protect the prisoners in their care, all prisoners should be removed from the facility.

CCA, which boasts of being the largest owner and operator of private correctional and detention facilities in the U.S. with 63 facilities in 20 states housing approximately 76,000 prisoners, has faced hundreds of lawsuits in recent years, including two ACLU lawsuits challenging overcrowding and unconstitutional medical care at the San Diego Correctional Facility, an immigration detention facility in San Diego.

A copy of today’s complaint is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/riggs-et-al-v-valdez-et-al-second-amended-complaint