(AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, File)

A Private-Prison CEO Is Actually Testifying About a Brutal Assault in His Facility

A trial starting this week offers a rare window into the workings of the typically opaque private-prison industry, which is due for a big boost under Donald Trump.

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Feb 13 2017, 6:24pm

(AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, File)

In May 2012, an Aryan gang jumped eight inmates in an Idaho private prison, stabbing and slashing them with long metal shanks. One man was stabbed 18 times in the head, face, and hands.

Now, after more than four years of litigation, the victims of the attack are hoping to get justice—not against the gang that attacked them, but by suing the private company that ran their prison.

In a trial starting Monday, the inmates are arguing that CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), one of the largest private-prison companies in the country, cut staff to dangerously low levels in order to maximize its profits. Its prison, the Idaho Correctional Center, was so understaffed at the time of the attack, the inmates say, that guards essentially let violent gangs take over sections of the facility. Prison officials would even ask gang leaders' permission before moving inmates between cells, they allege.

The vast majority of lawsuits against private-prison companies are dismissed or settled behind closed doors, so the Idaho trial offers a rare window into the workings of the typically opaque private-prison industry—as well as what critics say are the fundamental flaws in for-profit corrections. And it's going to trial just as advocates fear President Trump is launching deportations that would likely require several new private detention centers run by companies like CoreCivic.

"Lawsuits going to trial are one of the few ways to get transparency in this industry," said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoners' advocacy group. "This litigation is just a small way for the public to get a glimpse of the problems and deficiencies of private prisons."

Most surprisingly, the judge in the trial has ordered CoreCivic's CEO, Damon Hininger, to fly up to Boise and testify during the trial. It's very unusual for a private-prison CEO to have to testify in open court about violence in his own prison, Friedmann noted.

The Idaho Correctional Center, which opened in 2000 as the first private prison in Idaho, was embroiled in controversy for years over a lack of adequate staffing. In 2013, the Associated Press first reported a "ghost worker" scheme at the prison involving employees falsifying staffing logs, making it appear like more guards were on duty than actually were. Idaho governor C.L. "Butch" Otter ordered state officials to take over the prison in 2014, ending CoreCivic's $29 million annual contract. The company eventually paid the state a $1 million settlement over understaffing issues.

Anthony Shallat, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the upcoming lawsuit, said he would argue in court that the understaffing was simply the result of the company's attempts to squeeze a profit out of the prison.

"The warden was under constant pressure to try to meet his budget, and given direction from upper management that the primary levers to manipulate the ICC budget was salary and wages," Shallat said.

The plaintiffs are arguing that the chronic understaffing came to a violent climax on May 5, 2012, when a gang called the Aryan Knights attacked the group of eight inmates, several of whom had been refusing to join the gang. (Only six of the victims are now plaintiffs in the trial; the other two had their claims dismissed by the judge because they failed to complete the prison's grievance procedure.) Security-camera videos obtained by the plaintiffs' attorneys show the gang members jump out from a janitor's closet that should have been locked. While two corrections officers responded quickly, they were outnumbered and unable to stop the assault on their own, Shallat said.

Now, all of the victims are facing physical or psychological problems, including forms of PTSD, their attorneys say. Three of the plaintiffs are still being held in other prisons, while three are free. The six are expected to testify about their experiences.

During the trial, they'll be attempting to draw a causal line between CoreCivic's drive to boost profits and the violent attack. A key point will be evidence that managers at the prison got bonuses for cutting staffing costs—evidence that they say strikes at the core of whether corrections should be for-profit at all.

CoreCivic's lawyers fought the plaintiffs' efforts to call Hininger to testify, arguing in court documents that he didn't have anything to do with the Idaho attack. A judge rejected those arguments earlier this month and ordered the CEO to appear. Hininger is now expected to testify this Thursday or Friday, and will likely be asked about the company's financial position and statements he made during conference calls with investors.

"We respect the judge's decision, and Mr. Hininger looks forward to presenting his testimony," CoreCivic spokesperson Jonathan Burns said in an email. "The safety and security of our facilities is a top priority. The Idaho Correctional Center was in compliance with the staffing pattern contractually approved by the Idaho Department of Correction during the period of time in question." 

The company has also argued in court documents that the attack wasn't caused by understaffing but by low-level officers failing to follow procedures.

The trial is expected to take about a week and a half. If the jury finds in the plaintiffs' favor, it could award them damages reaching up to the millions of dollars.  

"It's a miracle that they survived, that they're able to walk and talk and speak about it today," Shallat said. "They're eager for justice, and they want their case to be heard at trial."

The trial comes at a big moment for the private-prison industry as a whole. Under President Obama, the federal Department of Justice announced it would phase out all of its private-prison contracts, putting companies like CoreCivic in jeopardy of big losses.

But that all changed on Election Day. Trump has lauded the privatization of prisons, and some estimates suggest his stated intentions of deporting 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants could lead to the construction of more than 100,000 new beds in privately run detention centers. Stocks for the CoreCivic surged on the day after the election and have continued to increase since.

CoreCivic and another company, the GEO Group, command the majority of the market for both private prisons and detention centers. So if you want to know what could happen in the detention centers where the immigrants Trump wants to deport will be held, it might be a good idea to pay attention to the trial in Idaho.

"This is one way they generate profit, through reducing payroll," Friedmann said. "Even if that makes the facilities less safe."

Follow Casey Tolan on Twitter.

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