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PLN managing editor quoted re FBI investigation of CCA

The Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN managing editor quoted re FBI investigation of CCA - The Tennessean 2014

Note: This article only appeared in the print edition of The Tennessean.

Published March 8, 2014

CCA is target of probe by FBI

Idaho inmates say prison operator ran 'gladiator school'

Staff, wire reports

The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Nashville-based private prison company Corrections Corp. of America, which ran what Idaho inmates called "gladiator school" because of a violent atmosphere they say understaffing helped create.

CCA has operated Idaho's largest prison for more than a decade, but last year CCA officials acknowledged it had understaffed the Idaho Correctional Center by thousands of hours, in violation of its contract with the state. CCA also said employees falsified reports to cover up the vacancies. The announcement came after an Associated press investigation showed CCA sometimes listed guards as working 48 hours straight to meet minimum staffing requirements.

The Idaho State Police was asked to investigate the company last year but didn't until, amid increasing political pressure, the governor ordered the agency to do so last month. Democratic state lawmakers asked the FBI to take up the case in February.

Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray confirmed Friday the FBI met with department Director Brent Reinke on Thursday to inform him about the investigation. Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said her agency was no longer involved in the investigation and the FBI had taken it over entirely.

"The [FBI] have other cases that are tied to this one, so it worked out better for them to handle it from here," Baker said.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen could not be immediately reached, but Owen has previously said his company would continue to cooperate with any investigation.

CCA operates six jails in Tennessee, including the Metro Detention Facility on Harding Pike for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office. The CCA corporate headquarters is in Green Hills.

TN audit urged

Prison system watchdog Alex Friedman said he believed news of the FBI investigation should prompt state officials to audit CCA facilities in Tennessee, including the three state prisons the company operates.

Friedman said the arrangement in Tennessee is the same as it was in Idaho, where state monitors inside the facilities are dependent on data and reports provided by the company. Freidman also said there weren't enough state monitors to safeguard against the practices that were alleged to have taken place in Idaho.

State officials, though, said similar problems have not occurred in Tennessee.

"The Department of Correction has had a great partnership with CCA," DOC spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said. "We have monitors who are located at all of the CCA-operated facilities that have Tennessee state inmates, and we have not received any indication of impropriety at those facilities."

The understaffing in Idaho has been the subject of federal lawsuits and a contempt-of-court action against CCA. The ACLU sued on behalf of inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center in 2010, saying the facility was so violent that inmates called it "gladiator school" and that understaffing contributed to the high levels of violence there.

In 2012, a Boise law firm sued on behalf of inmates contending that CCA had ceded control to prison gangs so that they could understaff the prison and save money on employee wages, and that the understaffing led to an attack by one prison gang on another group of inmates that left some of them badly injured.

The Department of Justice requested a copy of a forensic audit done for the Idaho Department of Correction earlier this year. That audit showed CCA had understaffed the prison by as much as 26,000 hours in 2012 alone. CCA is strongly contesting those findings. CCA’s Owen has said the company believes the audit overestimates the staffing issues by more than a third.

$1M settlement

CCA's contract with Idaho was worth about $29 million a year. In February, the company agreed to pay Idaho $1 million to settle the understaffing claims.

CCA is the largest private prison operator in the U.S. and manages nearly 70 facilities around the country. In fiscal 2012, the company generated more that $1.8 billion in revenue.

CCA also runs the Hardeman County Correctional Center, Silverdale Detention Facilities in Chattanooga, South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason and the White Correctional Facility.

Tennessean reporter Nate Rau contributed to this report.