Judge: Prison firm lied about staffing

CCA ruled in contempt in Idaho; both prison firms regularly penalized in Fla. over vacancies

PROFIT, POLITICS, PAIN — Huge profits and sweet setups for Wall Street darlings; rape, squalor, murder in lockups — and the price for Florida taxpayers

Hanni Elabed took a BB gun with him when he robbed a drugstore in search of oxycodone, a decision that earned him a 12-year sentence for robbery.

It also would take the 24-year-old to a privately run Idaho prison so violent it was dubbed “The Gladiator School.”

He left the prison permanently brain damaged.

Later reports of conditions at the Corrections Corporation of America-run facility would document too few guards with too little training.

It wasn’t unusual for two corrections officer to oversee 264 inmates, a former guard said.

And in Florida, it hasn’t been unusual for CCA, which operates four of Florida’s seven state prisons, to rack up hundreds of thousands in penalties for failing to fully staff this state’s lockups.

In 2011-2012 alone, CCA-run Florida prisons were penalized $619,735 for not filling empty job positions.

Not all of those vacancies are security officers. Some, for instance, could be clerical staff.

And the Nashville company is not the only one to lose money over vacancies.

GEO Group Inc., the state’s second largest private prison operator, lost $569,292 to vacancy penalties, and Management & Training Corp. lost $118, 015, both in 2011-2012.

But CCA is the only private company managing Florida prisons to face a contempt of court ruling and a police investigation over staffing. It is the only one to publicly admit employees falsified thousands of hours of work records.

In a blistering opinion handed down last month, U.S. District Judge David Carter ruled CCA was in contempt of court for understaffing its Idaho prison in violation of a legal settlement.

By then, CCA had admitted manipulating documents to make it appear enough officers were on hand to safely operate the prison.

“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.

“If a prospective fine leads to $2.4 million in penalties, CCA has no one to blame but itself.”

Inmates and officers alike have reason to be wary of too few guards: A well-regarded study found private prisons experienced 49 percent more assaults on guards and 65 percent more assaults on inmates than in government-operated lockups.

Guards at the Idaho prison have said under oath that other officers created situations ripe for violence, placing non-violent prisoners such as Elabed with some of the facility’s most notorious felons.

On Jan. 18, 2010, Elabed, who was of Palestinian descent, was transferred to a pod housing members of the white supremacist Aryan Knights gang. Elabed, who was telling prison officers about drug dealing by the same gang, had already been assaulted by the time he was moved into the housing unit.

He was attacked within minutes.

In full view of a video camera and several guards, a gang member repeatedly slammed Elabed’s head against a wall and the plexiglass door window separating inmates from guards.

Elabed’s assailant casually took time out from the beating to get a sip of water and sit down to rest.

Elabed dragged himself to the guard room and begged them to unlock the door.

They didn’t.

The gang member returned to the prone Elabed and resumed kicking him in the head.

When the attack ended, Elabed lay convulsing in a pool of blood. Brain-damaged, he was released on medical parole.

In 2011, CCA agreed to a sealed settlement in a suit brought by Elabed’s family.

Separately, the company and ACLU struck a settlement to improve conditions.

But last year, eight men were stabbed and beaten by several gang members as a single guard repeatedly tried — and failed — to quell the attack.

Prison video shows that as the guard used chemical spray on one group of attackers, another group continued the assault behind his back. When he attempted to spray them, the first group of men resumed the stabbings.

He ran out of spray.

Even after another guard arrived, the first officer was left to try to singlehandedly pull several attackers off an inmate. They ignored him.

The officer told investigators the prison was extremely short-staffed. Another prison staffer subsequently told attorneys for the injured inmates that, “staff members have been threatened with disciplinary action for noting … how many officers were physically present on a unit.”

Further, the staffer said, “Staff members were being worked in consecutive 16 hour shifts. … Employees were literally stumbling in exhaustion.”

Five months later, CCA acknowledged employees falsified staffing records. The company said it would pay back the state and “take appropriate disciplinary action” against employees involved.

It denied the staffing contributed to violence.

Carter, the federal judge, dismissed the company’s argument.

“Having enough correctional officers can deter violence, but also it offers other benefits, such as having enough staff on the prison floor to accurately track the levels of violence in the first place,” he wrote.

The Idaho State Police launched a criminal investigation.

Florida’s Department of Management Services emphasizes that strong contracts and onsite monitoring prevent both understaffing and the problems officer shortages can create.

That’s because while financial penalties for vacancy deductions are frequent, they don’t represent understaffing, said Mike Weber, head of Florida’s Bureau of Private Prison Monitoring.

As long as certain posts and staffing patterns are filled, the state contends, security isn’t compromised. For instance, an officer can work overtime to fill a position until another officer can be hired. And officer overtime is capped in Florida contracts, designed to stop the kind of excessive overtime seen at the Idaho prison.

In fact, Florida’s contracts have been held up as models for other states, said Weber. “Our structure is nothing like Idaho,” he said. “We would not understaff a facility.”

In Idaho, the Justice Department has wound up a three-year investigation into violence at the prison, concluding there was not enough evidence to charge staffers with federal crimes. While U.S. Attorney Wendy Olsen described the incidents as troubling, she said in a prepared statement that, “None of these assaults were incidents where we could prove the elements of a federal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Shane Jepsen, chief of security at the troubled prison, was fired by CCA, which discovered the staffing fraud as part of an unrelated investigation. Jepsen last month sued his former employer, alleging he was scapegoated — that he repeatedly told the warden and assistant warden about staffing problems, including a warning that, “people are on the rosters that are not here.”

CCA spokesman Steve Owen has said the company cooperated fully with investigators and that the safety of inmates, staffers and communities is a top priority. As to staffing, the company previously stated that it was taking “all appropriate steps” to correct the matter.

But it will only be a problem for the next eight months. The prison contract expires in June 2014 and CCA isn’t going to bid for it.

After 10 years in Idaho, the company is pulling out.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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