Printed on: September 28, 2013

The Ugly Truth

From the Lewiston Tribune

Corrections Corporation of America can't be trusted.

Not when it comes to CCA's $29 million contract with the state of Idaho. The company pledged to maintain a minimal staffing level at the Idaho Correctional Center CCA manages outside Boise.

Not when it comes to a 2-year-old promise to boost prison security staffing levels. CCA made that pledge to settle the class action lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of inmates.

That's not us saying it.

That's U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter saying it.

In fact, Carter hurled an old-fashioned adjective at CCA. After poring over CCA's falsified staffing reports, Carter called them a bunch of liars.

"For CCA staff to lie on so basic a point -- whether an officer is actually at a post -- leaves the court with serious concerns about compliance in other respects, such as whether every violent incident is reported," Carter wrote.

The judge's blunt language -- issued Monday -- is just the latest eye-opener in a case that strips the veneer off CCA's management of a prison inmates dubbed the "gladiator school."

When those inmates -- represented by the ACLU -- sued CCA, they contended chronic understaffing had left them vulnerable to violent attacks at the hands of other prisoners.

Not long after the two sides settled, CCA disclosed that it had billed the state for about 4,800 hours of staff time not worked. Idaho State Police are conducting a separate investigation, but witnesses, including current and former CCA employees, told Carter understaffing was more pervasive than the corporation admitted. In fact, the judge took note that it continued right up to the eve of last month's court hearing -- a process CCA sought to keep under seal.

"It is clear that there was a persistent failure to fill required mandatory positions, along with a pattern of CCA staff falsifying rosters to make it appear that all posts were filled," Carter wrote. "Defendants did not keep clear records, did not specifically inquire about compliance with staffing levels, and thus they did not take all reasonable steps to comply with the settlement agreement."

So Carter did something possibly without precedent in the United States. He held a private prison management company in contempt of court. He announced plans to appoint an independent monitor to ensure CCA meets its staffing commitments -- and pledged to impose fines if it does not comply. Any time more than one shift goes unfilled in a month, CCA will be fined $100 per hour and the judge threatened to increase the fines if necessary.

Left unanswered in all this, however, is why the company can't meet its staffing requirements.

Idaho Board of Corrections and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter ought to find out. Doing so means scrutinizing the private prison business model.

No way such a move is coming out of a group of ideologues who refuse to examine whether Idaho's Department of Correction could do this job for the same or less money -- with far fewer problems. Instead, they've canceled CCA's contract and put the project out for bid -- but only outfits guided by the profit motive need apply. By the way, nothing prevents CCA from bidding on the new proposal.

Odds are Idaho's CCA-managed prison isn't short of personnel because employees are sent home early. More likely, the people aren't there in the first place. Working 12-hour shifts among felons is stressful enough. If the employer is scrimping on pay and benefits, who's going to sign up -- and who will stick around?

Personnel-related costs take up about 70 percent of a prison's budget. Spend too much on staff and the profits disappear.

That's why you can't trust CCA -- or any private prison manager. Their business model puts profits first, inmates second and the taxpayer last.