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ACLU-Idaho says prison may be violating settlement

BOISE, Idaho (AP) | The ACLU of Idaho says Corrections Corporation of America appears to be violating a settlement reached with inmates in a so-called "Gladiator School" lawsuit over violence at an Idaho prison run by the company.

The organization sent CCA a letter last week detailing its concerns about safety at the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, executive director Monica Hopkins said. The letter was sent just a day before by a group of inmates filed a separate lawsuit in Boise's U.S. District Court alleging continued mismanagement and gang violence at the prison.

The settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union stemmed from a 2010 lawsuit the organization filed on behalf of inmates at the prison, contending the CCA-run facility was so violent that inmates called it "Gladiator School." CCA firmly denied the allegations, but the two sides reached a deal requiring staffing and safety changes at the prison.

The settlement requires that both sides try to resolve any disputes together before going back to court. Hopkins said the ACLU's letter outlined "a number of concerns we have about CCA's compliance with the September 2011 court agreement."

"We trust that we will receive a response soon, and we hope that further litigation will be avoided," she said.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen says the Nashville, Tenn.-based company continues to work in good faith to reach an amicable resolution through the settlement process.

"Our focus is on operating a safe, high-quality facility," Owen said.

The separate lawsuit filed by a group of eight inmates late last week echoed allegations made in the ACLU case, with the inmates saying CCA is working with a few powerful prison gangs to control the facility. The inmates contend correctional officers use gang violence and the threat of gang violence as an "inexpensive device to gain control over the inmate population," allowing the company to use fewer guards and reduce payroll costs.

The eight inmates also allege CCA has violated the settlement with the ACLU by engaging in a "persistent pattern of misconduct." The settlement required CCA to increase staffing; to leave more prison beds open so threatened inmates easily can be moved to safer cellblocks; to report to the local sheriff's office all assaults that appear to amount to aggravated battery; to increase training; and to discipline staffers who don't take appropriate measures to stop or prevent assaults.

The inmates are asking for punitive damages, a move that allows them to seek more money than if they were compensated just for any actual harm they sustained. They claim that's the only way to make the company change its ways. Though they haven't named a specific dollar amount, the inmates are asking for enough money to "punish and discourage CCA and other similarly situated persons and entities from engaging in this type of reprehensible conduct in the future," according to the lawsuit. They also note the company handed out $80 million to shareholders last year.

Owen said in response to that lawsuit that the safety and security of CCA's facilities, employees and inmates are a top concern. He said any allegations are promptly investigated and, if the company's standards aren't met, are swiftly remedied.

Other inmates have reached settlements with CCA in the past, getting payouts from the company for their alleged damages. But those settlement amounts are always confidential.

Former inmate Marlin Riggs originally was part of the 2010 lawsuit but eventually split from the larger group to pursue his own case because he was the only inmate seeking monetary damages. Riggs had asked for $55 million, but it's unclear how much CCA actually settled the case for because both sides agreed to keep it secret.

The Associated Press filed a court motion asking a judge to unseal the settlement, citing the public interest in the case and the fact that CCA, while a private company, was carrying out a government function in Idaho. However, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ruled that the interests of Riggs and CCA in keeping the settlement confidential outweighed the interest that the public has in learning its terms.

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