Private Police Powers 

Lawmakers concerned about lawsuit, violence at private prison

Violent beatdowns at the privately run Idaho Correctional Center appear to have subsided in recent weeks, in the wake of a class-action lawsuit against the prison and shakeup of prison leadership, according to documents obtained by Boise Weekly.

The prison reported 17 inmate-on-inmate assaults in January and 15 in February, according to a tally of incident reports filed with the Idaho Department of Correction. But there were only nine assaults reported in March and only four since warden Phillip Valdez and assistant warden Daniel Prado were replaced on March 17.

A spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company that manages ICC, Idaho's largest prison, has repeatedly declined to comment on the situation at the prison, citing the lawsuit.

But Idaho lawmakers are troubled by the levels of violence and accusations in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that assaults at ICC were perpetrated with the full knowledge of--even collusion by--guards.

"If those things actually happened at ICC, I was not aware of it and I don't think anybody in the Legislature was aware of it," said Republican Rep. Leon Smith of Twin Falls, co-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "If it's proven that they did those things, then they are going to pay big penalties."

Democratic Rep. Grant Burgoyne of Boise went even further, likening CCA to the actions of private military contractors in Iraq.

"I believe that it is not appropriate, when it comes to the incarceration of people, that that be outsourced to a private contractor," Burgoyne said. "There are certain core government services that should be carried out by government officials."

IDOC carried a bill through the Idaho Legislature earlier this year that gives IDOC Director Brent Reinke more authority to quell serious disturbances and riots at the privately run prison and to quell "affrays and insurrections" as well. Several lawmakers noted the timing of the bill, which was introduced just before the ACLU lawsuit was filed, but a spokesman for IDOC said there was no connection.

"Our intent with the new legislation is to give the director statutory authority to intervene and quell a serious disturbance," said prisons spokesman Jeff Ray. "We can't say what the legislative intent was when they used the word 'affray.'"

An affray is a fight between two or more people in a public place. Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, said that the bill is a step in the right direction, but does not affect the lawsuit.

"I think IDOC has stepped up to the plate and they have known that something is going on out there, because the bill is bringing them into compliance with what the federal court will already tell them," she said.

The ACLU lawsuit details 23 serious assaults at ICC, going back to November 2006, all of which, the attorneys allege, were preventable. There were at least 43 inmate fights at ICC since Jan. 1 of this year, according to incident reports obtained by Boise Weekly through a public information request to IDOC.

The Ada County Sheriff's Office was called only four times for inmate battery investigations in that same time period, according to public information officer Andrea Dearden, though there were other investigations for drugs found at the prison and for an assault on two staff members.

• On Jan. 18, sheriff's deputies investigated the severe beating of Hanni Elabed, who has filed a separate, $25 million claim against ICC and the state. The Ada County Prosecutor's Office intends to file charges against the inmate who beat him, according to Elabed's brother.

• On Jan. 24, prison officials called the Sheriff's Office, but deputies declined to investigate a battery report from a fight that may have occurred three days prior.

• On Jan. 26, deputies investigated an assault on two prison staff members and forwarded charges to the prosecutor.

• On March 1, deputies investigated a fight with a weapon--described by prison officials as a "sharpened edged weapon"--but the weapon was never recovered.

• And on March 10, deputies investigated at least three fights that broke out in separate areas of the prison simultaneously.

Also since Jan. 1, ICC officials discovered marijuana four times, bags of homemade alcohol in a shower, meth and at least two shanks.

Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter, through a spokesman, declined comment on the ACLU lawsuit, but his attorney, David Hensley, said Otter and IDOC are concerned about staff and prisoner safety at ICC, as at any prison.

"This situation, like any previous situation, warrants our concern, and we've been looking at that," Hensley said.

In 2007 and 2008, Otter proposed allowing more privately run prisons to be built in Idaho, but faced resistance from the Legislature, in part out of concern that out-of-state inmates would be housed here. Since the privatization bill died in 2008, Idaho's prison bed shortage has waned. Hundreds of inmates housed in other states have been returned to Idaho, some now housed in a new wing at ICC. Otter has not revived the idea of allowing privately owned and run lockups.

"The governor has been looking at cost effective ways to address the trends and recently we have seen the trends either stagnant or, in the last few months, we've even seen a decrease," Hensley said.

But for Hanni Elabed's family, the lack of transparency and public oversight at the private prison is inexcusable.

Elabed's older brother, Zahe Elabed, said guards put his brother in a cell with white supremacists despite threats against his Arab heritage, failed to notify his parents when he was left convulsing on the floor after being beaten against a wall and stomped more than 30 times, would not allow family visits or provide information on his condition over the phone and were rude.

"I think they need to do away with it, I think it's really unfair for any prisoner to be in there now," Zahe Elabed said. "You have to be a gladiator to survive in there."

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