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Videotaped Assault at Idaho CCA Prison Sparks FBI Investigation

Guards at a private prison in Idaho looked on, but did not intervene, as a prisoner was beaten into a coma. Video footage of the January 2010 incident has sparked an FBI investigation into civil rights violations at the facility.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company, operates the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC), which has long been condemned for high levels of violence.

In 34 years of suing more than 100 prisons and jails, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Stephen Pevar said ICC was the most violent prison he had ever seen.

Critics claim that ICC guards use prisoner-on-prisoner violence to force prisoners to snitch on their cellmates to avoid being transferred to extremely violent units. Prisoners have called ICC a “gladiator school” due to its reputation for violence.

Hanni Elabed, 24, knows all too well just how violent ICC is. He was serving a sentence of two to 12 years for robbery when he snitched on drug trafficking by ICC prisoners and guards, according to a subsequent lawsuit. He was placed in solitary confinement for his own protection when he complained that he was being threatened. Elabed was later returned to his original housing unit, however, where he was attacked six minutes later.

On November 30, 2010, the Associated Press (AP) released surveillance video of the vicious attack on Elabed. Prisoner James Haver is seen beating Elabed as at least three CCA guards watch from a guard station for several minutes. Elabed banged on a window pleading for help, but ICC staff did not intervene.

Haver beat Elabed so long and hard that he had to sit down and rest before resuming the assault. Even once Elabed was knocked unconscious, Haver stomped him at least a dozen more times.

About two minutes after Haver stopped his attack, the door to the unit opened and guards entered to handcuff Haver and examine Elabed for signs of life. Elabed suffered cranial bleeding and remained in a coma for three days; he was eventually granted a medical parole. He still suffers from brain damage and short-term memory loss. CCA agreed to settle Elabed’s lawsuit in November 2010 under undisclosed terms. See: Elabed v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:10-cv-00218-EJL.

Within hours of the AP’s release of the Elabed video, Idaho’s top federal prosecutor acknowledged that the FBI was investigating whether CCA guards had violated the civil rights of prisoners at ICC. The inquiry focuses on prisoner assaults and the overall rate of violence at the facility, according to U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson. CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company was cooperating with federal investigators.

The Elabed video was a key piece of evidence in a class-action lawsuit filed against CCA, which has since been settled, that alleged prisoners were denied medical treatment to cover up the rampant violence. [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.10].

The Private Corrections Institute (PCI), a non-profit watchdog organization that opposes prison privatization, issued a press release on December 1, 2010 condemning the violence at ICC and CCA’s response to the release of the Elabed video.

CCA had criticized the AP’s decision to publish the video, saying in a statement that the “release of the video poses an unnecessary security risk to our staff, the inmates entrusted to our care, and ultimately to the public.”

“That is utter nonsense,” countered PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann, who also serves as PCI’s president. “I’ve watched the video, and the only ‘unnecessary risk’ it poses is to CCA’s liability in prisoner assault cases and to the notion that CCA employees are corrections professionals.”

“CCA’s public relations staff needs remedial training,” Friedmann added. “Rather than try to minimize the fallout from the release of a video that shows callous disregard to an inmate’s safety, CCA should take steps to ensure that the prisoners ‘entrusted to their care’ are safe, and that brutal assaults like the one shown in the video do not happen again while supposedly ‘well-trained’ CCA guards stand idly by.”

The ICC is accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), a private organization that provides accreditation to public and private correctional facilities for a fee, and which receives funding from private prison companies, including CCA.

“The fact that a private prison with such high levels of violence – that is facing both a class-action lawsuit and an investigation by the FBI – has received ACA accreditation raises serious questions about the credibility of the ACA and the accreditation process itself,” said PCI director Ken Kopczynski.

In the wake of the ICC scandal, Idaho Department of Corrections Director Brent Reinke released a statement claiming that Idaho’s eight state-run prisons were among the safest and most efficient in the nation. According to an October 9, 2011 AP article, in 2010 the ICC had more violent incidents than all Idaho state prisons combined. That was an improvement since 2008, when the violence rate at ICC was three times higher than at state facilities.

Excessive violence is nothing new to CCA and private prisons in general. PLN has repeatedly reported on similar incidents at CCA facilities and higher levels of violence at privately-operated prisons. [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.18].

Sources: PCI press release (Dec. 1, 2010), USA Today, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Elabed v. CCA