BOISE, IDAHO • A gang war that appears to have taken over parts of an Idaho private prison is spilling into the federal courts, with some inmates contending prison officials are ceding control to gang leaders in an effort to save money on staffing.
Eight inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center are suing the Corrections Corporation of America, contending the company is working with a few powerful prison gangs to control the facility south of Boise.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Boise’s U.S. District Court, paints the prison as a place where correctional officers work in fear of angering inmate gang members and where housing supervisors ask permission from gang leaders before moving anyone new into an empty cell. The inmates also contend that CCA officials use gang violence and the threat of gang violence as an “inexpensive device to gain control over the inmate population,” according to the lawsuit, and that housing gang members together allows the company to use fewer guards, reducing payroll costs.
“The complaint alleges that CCA fosters and develops criminal gangs,” attorney Wyatt Johnson, who along with T.J. Angstman represents the inmates, said in a statement. “Ideally, the lawsuit should force this to come to an end.”
The inmates point to investigative reports from the Idaho Department of Correction that suggest gangs like the Aryan Knights and the Severely Violent Criminals were able to wrest control from staff members after prison officials began housing members of the same gangs together in some cellblocks to reduce violent clashes.
The power shift meant a prison staffer had to negotiate the placement of new inmates with gang leaders, according to the department reports, and that prison guards were afraid to enforce certain rules.
Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison company, says its top priority is the safety and security of its prisons, employees and inmates.
“We take all allegations seriously and act swiftly if our standards have not been met,” spokesman Steve Owen said in a statement. “… At all times, we are held to the highest standards of accountability and transparency by our government partners, and expect to be.”
Owen said the Nashville, Tenn.-based company has operated the Idaho prison in partnership with the state correction department for more than a decade, providing housing and rehabilitation for “some of the state’s most challenging inmate populations.”
Both Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s spokesman Jon Hanian and state Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Ray declined to comment because of the litigation, though neither the state nor the department is named as a defendant. The Idaho Correctional Center is the largest prison in the state, with an operating capacity of 2,080 beds.
The inmates also cite security footage of a violent gang attack carried out in May, which they say shows CCA staffers failed to follow basic safety and security policies.
The video, filed with the lawsuit, shows six members of the Aryan Knights prison gang jumping out of a janitor supply closet to attack seven members of a rival gang. The Aryan Knights in the video are armed with knives and other weapons made out of toothbrushes, drawer pulls and other materials.
Just one guard appears to be nearby at the time, and that guard tries to pull away one inmate who is repeatedly stabbing another. Other guards soon arrive and jump in to separate the offenders, deploying pepper spray and ordering the inmates to the ground.
After the attack the state Department of Correction completed a series of investigative reports, which showed CCA staffers weren’t following basic safety and security policies at the prison.
The reports said prison staff failed to take such basic steps as making sure other inmates didn’t go near the weapons used in the fight. As a result, the chain of evidence wasn’t preserved, according to the reports, and it’s unclear if any of the inmates were ever criminally charged.
The reports also include details from an interview with CCA’s unit manager at the prison, Norma Rodriguez, who told department investigators that the gang members essentially were running some of the cellblocks.
Rodriguez said sex offenders can’t be housed in those units because they’re at risk of attacks by gang members, and inmates without gang affiliation can’t be moved into the pods because it would force them to join the gangs or be targeted themselves.
Rodriguez told the corrections investigators that as a result, she had to negotiate new inmate placements with gang leaders. She also said prison guards were afraid to enforce basic safety rules, such as keeping inmates from covering over the small windows on their cell doors. Rodriguez said that when she tries to enforce the rules, gang members warn her that she’s only making it “hard on” the other guards, implying her staffers will be attacked in retaliation.
The corrections department documents also imply that guards may have helped the inmates plan for the attack shown in the security footage, or they at the least looked the other way.
A similar incident, with a group of gang members hiding in a closet to attack rivals, happened less than a year ago, according to the reports, so CCA guards knew such an attack was a possibility.
In the May attack, only one guard was on hand because the other had gone to get candy bars and sodas for the inmates in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, according to the reports, and cell searches were sometimes skipped or shoddily done, allowing the inmates to build and store weapons.
Guards apparently also failed to take the basic security measure of doing a head count as offenders moved from the cellblock to the dining and recreation areas, so it wasn’t immediately clear that the six inmates were hiding in the janitor’s closet.