Shane Penrod bowed his head and fought back tears as he left his attorney's office, where he and four others shared stories of corruption and sexual misconduct at the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections' Nampa detention center.
"I don't know what I would do if it weren't for my son," said Penrod, saying his 7-year-old boy gave him the strength to endure his nightly shifts with the IDJC.
"It's been rough," said the IDJC security officer. "I've never been on medicine before."
Penrod said the Nampa work environment of abuse, discrimination and retaliation plunged him into sleeplessness, depression and occasional thoughts of suicide. Penrod said his physicians are trying to ease some of his emotional pain, but he's counting on Idaho judiciary to alleviate some of the anguish as well, by remedying what he and his fellow workers call "widespread abuse and corruption" at the IDJC.
"It's about fixing what's wrong," Penrod said.
On June 23, Penrod and six other whistle-blowers signed onto a lawsuit that charges the IDJC, Director Sharon Harrigfeld and Superintendent Betty Grimm with discrimination, wasting taxpayer dollars and safety violations that put incarcerated minors and workers at risk.
You can read the state's response, filed July 16 in U.S. District Court, here: IDJC_suit_response.pdf
Boise attorney Andrew Schoppe filed the 24-page complaint on behalf of the workers, detailing what they called years of cronyism, fraud, safety violations and retaliation against employees who voiced concerns. Since the filing in the U.S. District Court in Boise, more witnesses have come forward with additional claims of tax-dollar waste and sexual misconduct at the Nampa detention facility.
"People have been playing golf while clocked in," Schoppe said. "Juveniles are having sex with each other."
And staffers have had sexual relations with the juveniles in their custody, Schoppe said.
"One staff member was [sexually] involved with a juvenile. That juvenile became a staff member and now they are involved with another juvenile," added Penrod.
IDJC officials refused to comment on the pending lawsuit. Their attorney, Phillip Collaer, filed an answer to the complaint denying all allegations but did not respond to Boise Weekly's interview request.
Schoppe is preparing to amend the original complaint to add additional claims and four more plaintiffs to the suit. He also expects to see civil suits filed on behalf of the juveniles.
"The civil rights of the juveniles is an issue here," Schoppe said.
The list of witnesses also continues to grow. A total of 47 staffers have already stepped forward with evidence or concerns regarding corruption, but not all employees are willing to sign onto the suit as plaintiffs. Fears of retaliation and unemployment in a shaky economy have kept workers silent, plaintiffs said.
"Who wants to not have a job?" plaintiff Rhonda Ledford asked.
Past employees have also stepped forward, but Schoppe said many of the former workers' claims have exceeded the statute of limitation and therefore can't join the suit as plaintiffs, but they're willing to speak as witnesses.
"They have no self-interest here," Schoppe said.
The plaintiffs paint a picture of a juvenile detention facility plagued by poor leadership, favoritism and absent accountability--a place where under-qualified employees have job descriptions tailor-made and favored employees use department vehicles for weekend joyrides. Plaintiffs say that friends and family of those in authority bypass qualified applicants for choice jobs. The IDJC complainants also allege incarcerated juveniles sit on hiring committees. But perhaps worst of all, plaintiffs say, inmates are allowed to run freely in unsupervised areas of the Nampa facility and even sneak away for sexual encounters in the detention center's showers.
"We're known as Club Med by other detention facilities," Ledford said.
Ledford thumbed through one of multiple binders of documentation, but said that much of the paper trail of evidence is missing because IDJC paperwork doesn't always reflect reality. Time cards get padded, she said; safety incident reports disappear, recidivism rates are smudged and job applications are altered.
Plaintiffs allege rampant safety violations at the IDJC facility that make contraband easy to procure and easy to conceal. Ledford said staff wouldn't know if something was missing because tools, equipment and office supplies are not accounted for at the facility.
"I can go to a pod [unit] and look around and see all the things they can make weapons out of. I've asked about them and was told, 'Oh, it's OK, they can have that,'" Penrod said.
The suit also alleges that some IDJC employees have worked while intoxicated, violent offenders have been left unsupervised and inmates with disabilities have been ignored. Plaintiffs pointed to an occasion when the only guard on duty sat with her head bowed as an inmate braided the guard's hair.
"I felt safer around violent offenders [at an adult prison] than I do with these juveniles [at the IDJC facility]," Penrod said.
Plaintiffs said IDJC management regularly bypassed veterans or applicants with experience in favor of less-qualified candidates. The complaint also alleges age discrimination.
"IDJC co-workers, leadership and management have repeatedly pressured plaintiff Jo McKinney to retire from her position based solely upon her age, and has even declined to provide her with upgraded computer equipment provided to others because, as far as IDJC is concerned, she 'won't be there much longer,'" Schoppe wrote in the complaint.
"Apparently, I'm going to retire," McKinney joked.
The suit notes an instance when a teaching position allegedly went to an un-credentialed applicant. When the applicant couldn't pass the entrance exam, the plaintiffs claim the answers were changed in order for the applicant to take a position as a special education teacher without any teaching certification.
"Every time a job is posted, they know who is going to get it," said Schoppe. "It's not a competitive process."
The plaintiffs said they have spoken to supervisors about concerns.
"Nothing happens," said McKinney.
Ledford added that when he complained, he was "written up" by IDJC supervisors.
The suit, seeking protection under U.S. and Idaho whistle-blower acts, notes that retaliation quickly followed the workers' complaints to management.
Penrod said he was switched to graveyard hours and Ledford said he was scheduled to work holidays shortly after they voiced their concerns.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages for emotional distress and economic losses from lost wages, vacation time and promotional opportunities, but Schoppe said his clients are more interested in "righting what went wrong," calling for a full investigation by the Idaho attorney general and U.S. attorney in Boise.
"They hope that the situation is going to change so that it's a safe place for everyone," said Schoppe. "They want to see the waste of taxpayer money end."
Plaintiffs told BW that they have already seen some changes since filing their lawsuit: reassignment of some payroll and education managers, missing reports and records have reappeared and some previously cold-shouldered supervisors have become exceptionally nice, according to the complainants.
"A lot of staff have come up to me and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you. It's about time someone said something,'" said Ledford.
But Ledford said she has been complaining about IDJC problems for years, talking to supervisors and going as far as writing to the office of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and her state senators.
"I went as far as I could go," she said.
But Ledford said no one listened until she and her six colleagues found Schoppe.
"They began to learn that they cannot trust their supervisors," Schoppe said. "When you get that many people who are not friends or family with the same complaints, there is a ring of truth. What they have in common is they have all come to the conclusion that even if they lose the jobs, they have to come forward because things cannot get any worse."