The American Civil Liberties Union sued state prison officials and a private company Thursday, claiming violence is so rampant at the Idaho Correctional Center that it’s known as “gladiator school” among inmates.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit against Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America in U.S. District Court in Boise.
The lawsuit says Idaho’s only private prison is extraordinarily violent, with guards deliberately exposing inmates to brutal beatings from other prisoners as a management tool.
The group contends the prison then denies injured inmates medical care to save money and hide the extent of injuries.
Steve Owen, the company’s director of public affairs, said it had not yet been served with the lawsuit and was reserving comment. Steven Conry, company vice president of facility operations, previously maintained the prison is a safe and well-run facility.
Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke also said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not immediately comment.
Stephen Pevar, senior attorney for the ACLU, said he has sued at least 100 jails and prisons, but none came close to the level of violence at Idaho Correctional Center.
“Our country should be ashamed to send human beings to that facility,” he said.
The ACLU is asking for class-action status and $155 million in punitive damages — the entire net profit reported by the company in 2009.
The ACLU says the money should go to lead plaintiff Marlin Riggs, who sustained permanent facial deformities and other medical problems after he was savagely beaten in his cell.
Guards use violence to control prisoner behavior, forcing inmates to “snitch” on other inmates under the threat of moving them to the most violent sections of the prison, ACLU-Idaho executive director Monica Hopkins says.
Hopkins says inmates will be beaten by fellow inmates if they become known as a snitch. If they refuse to give up names, the guards will have them beaten anyway, she says.
“It doesn’t do us any good as a society to put people in there where they have to turn to other gangs and become gang members to protect themselves,” she said. “The thing is, there’s a constitutional duty to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.”
The lawsuit also refers to an investigation by The Associated Press based on public records requests that found the level of violence at the prison was three times higher than other Idaho prisons, and that Idaho Department of Correction officials believed it was also dramatically underreported by Corrections Corp. of America and inmates.
At the time of that report, Conry maintained the prison is safe and well run.
The Idaho Correctional Center houses about 2,000 prisoners. The ACLU contends it is understaffed, with sometimes only two guards on duty to control prison wings with more than 350 inmates.
The ACLU lawsuit details the inmate-on-inmate attacks of about two dozen men, all of whom say they told guards they were in danger of being assaulted, had been assaulted or needed medical care after an assault.
In all the cases, the ACLU contends the men were summarily denied help.
Riggs, the lead plaintiff in the case, claimed members of a violent gang on his cell block told him in May 2008 that he’d be beaten unless he started paying “rent” to the gang.
He said in the lawsuit he told correctional officers about the threat and begged to be transferred to another cellblock, but the guards refused.
Riggs managed to call his family that day and tell them about the threats. But within moments of the phone call, Riggs says he was beaten by inmates, knocked down and kicked repeatedly in the face and torso.
The beating was so bad, the ACLU contends, that blood was spattered on the ceiling of Riggs’ cell and pooled on the floor.
Guards eventually intervened and took Riggs to an infirmary where a doctor told him his nose was broken and tried to reset it. However, the doctor refused to take X-rays and ignored several other broken bones in his face, the lawsuit claims.
Riggs was denied medical care for six months before being taken to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who said he needed immediate surgery, according to the lawsuit.
He ended up with a plate in his cheek, pins in his jaw and a permanent dent on the side of his face, and still suffers from blurry vision, headaches, pain, discomfort and mental trauma, the suit states.