WestViews: Transparency is not CCA's primary concern

August 19, 2013 

Lewiston Tribune

The price of Idaho Board of Correction Chairwoman Robin Sandy’s narrow, faith-based view of the world came into sharp focus last week.

Earlier this summer, the board opted not to renew its $29 million contract with Corrections Corporation of America. The management of the Idaho Correctional Center outside Boise has been marked by understaffed security, rampant inmate-on-inmate violence and escalating litigation. But Sandy refused to allow the state prison agency to bid on that contract. To do so, Sandy opined, would add “several hundred more state employees, and they would be on the state system, and it would grow the entire government by several hundred.”

Her decision all but guarantees a continuing struggle to find out what occurs at the privately managed ICC:

- Exhibit 1 — At the urging of 17 Idaho news media outlets, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge blocked CCA’s drive to seal the newest inmate lawsuit brought against it. This one alleges the contractor understaffed the prison, empowering gang members, who assaulted other inmates.

- Exhibit 2 — Testifying in a contempt of court hearing initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union, CCA officials acknowledged that they discovered about 4,800 hours for which ICC security guards drew pay but didn’t work. Turns out that number is low. The 4,800-hour figure is based on CCA investigating only the night shift during a seven-month span. Add in a partial review in May and June and the number grows by at least 452 hours.

“Let’s add together,” U.S. District Judge David Carter pressed. “4,800 hours, plus 152, plus 300, what is that? ... And we don’t know what the day shift for, gosh, July, August, September, October, November. We don’t know that, do we? So 4,800 hours is kind of a pretty low number, isn’t it?”

CCA had wanted much of that case kept under wraps as well. Carter said no.

- Exhibit 3 — Just before the ACLU settled its lawsuit in exchange for CCA’s assurances to repent in 2011, Tim Wengler became ICC’s warden. After CCA disclosed that its people were paid for 4,800 hours they didn’t work, Wengler retired.

However, he remains on CCA’s payroll. He’s paid to “assist them with things they need.” Testifying last week, he had a memory lapse. Wengler said he couldn’t remember if his contract banned him from making disparaging remarks or testifying against CCA.

- Exhibit No. 4 — At your expense, the Idaho Department of Correction and the Idaho State Police are waging an investigation to get to the bottom of the unstaffed billing hours affair. Will CCA be required to reimburse taxpayers for this additional cost? That’s not clear. A state Department of Correction spokeswoman said: “Contract language is not specific to the payment of investigative expenses, however a section covering remedial action offers several remedies including the payment of actual damages. Until the Idaho State Police investigation is complete a discussion of damages is premature.”

- Exhibit No. 5 — ACLU attorney Steven Pevar’s statement that everyone serving time at ICC has paid for his mistake but not the corporate entity charged with housing and securing those inmates remains as yet uncontroverted. “When people do bad things, they’re punished. My clients have been punished,” Pevar said. “CCA has done a bad thing and they’re not even acknowledging it to this day.”

More disclosures are coming. Carter has ordered unsealed about 19 documents related to the case, not to mention what emerges from the latest lawsuit.

But think about how uneven the fight has been up to this point.

On one hand, you have CCA — a megacorporation with 17,000 employees, revenues of $1.7 billion and a profit of about $156 million.

On the other side is the ACLU of Idaho, which employs eight people, and the 17 Idaho media outlets, none of which has anything remotely close to CCA’s financial wherewithal.

Talk about a David and Goliath struggle. But that’s required to force any corporation watching its own bottom line to respect your right to know how it handles $29 million of your tax money.

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