Lawsuit Puts Private Prisons in Spotlight

The cost savings from for-profit incarceration are debatable, and an Idaho suit claims that profitability can come at the price of prisoner safety.

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Antoney Jones, a gay African-American man imprisoned in Idaho, needed protection from other inmates who thrived on assaulting vulnerable prisoners, especially those who were black and gay, his lawyers said.

He especially needed protection after testifying against a criminal defendant for California prosecutors in an undisclosed case. Not only was he black and gay, but he was also considered to be a rat within the prison population. He was housed in 2007 at the Idaho Correctional Center in Kuna, just outside of Boise, which is a privately run prison considered so violent that it is dubbed "gladiator school" because of its kill-or-be-killed mentality among guards and prisoners, says Monica Hopkins, director of the ACLU of Idaho.

But Jones did not get protection. Instead he endured a beating worthy of a Martin Scorsese movie. It was so bad that he is part of a federal class-action suit filed in March 2010 by the ACLU and the ACLU of Idaho against the ICC, alleging that officials promote and facilitate "a culture of rampant violence that has led to carnage and suffering among prisoners," Hopkins says.

Jones was struck violently in the face within minutes of being housed in a dangerous pod at the ICC, the suit says. He bled for half an hour, his face was swollen, and both eyes turned black and blue.

"Prisoners throughout the pod lined the rails and began yelling, 'Kill the nigger,' 'Get the fag' and 'Kill the rat,' " the complaint reads. "It was a mini riot, and yet no guards intervened."

A spokesman for the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company, which runs the ICC, declined to comment via email to The Root. But in a response to the complaint, court records show that the company denies that it inadequately investigated assaults, refused to discipline guards and failed to protect prisoners.

Lower Costs, Higher Risks?

The case is emblematic of a growing number of problems that are endemic among private organizations that run prisons, according to Hopkins and other activists. As of June 30, 2008, there were 126,249 prisoners in private facilities nationwide, accounting for 7.8 percent of all prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That's up from 6.5 percent in 2000. The United States, with 7.2 million prisoners, has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

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Pressure to save taxpayer dollars and create jobs in states and communities across the nation is part of what's driving this growth in privately run prisons. Some proponents argue that private prisons house so-called easy prisoners -- those in relatively good health -- thus reducing the cost of housing them.