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Private prison workers sue CCA over safety issues

Three current workers and one former worker at Idaho’s largest private prison are suing Corrections Corporation of America in state court over what they say is a dangerous work environment.

Mark Eixenberger, Mandi Bravo, Mario Vasquez and Leonard King filed the lawsuit in Boise’s 4th District Court on Jan. 23 against the Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA. The workers contend that they sustained severe emotional distress and in one case, physical injuries, because they were put to work at the Idaho Correctional Center with broken equipment and inadequate training. In the lawsuit, the workers say they were equipped with broken radio sets, empty pepper spray canisters and were often left to work without basic equipment like handcuffs.

CCA has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit.

“We have yet to be served with this complaint, so we haven’t had the opportunity to review any specific allegations,” CCA spokesman Steve Owen told The Associated Press in an email. “However, contrary to the generalizations made in the document, CCA takes the safety of its facilities and our employees very seriously. We also provide significant and ongoing opportunities for employee training that meet or exceed industry standards.”

The workers are represented by Boise attorney Andrew Schoppe. In the lawsuit, Schoppe writes that CCA has already been held in contempt of court for understaffing in violation of a separate lawsuit settlement and that the company has acknowledged that falsified reports were given to the state of Idaho showing that thousands of unstaffed guard positions were actually filled.

“In addition to falsifying those records, the Plaintiffs are also informed that at least one other instance occurred in which records relating to ongoing investigations into crimes and other incidents at the prison were knowingly destroyed by CCA administrators,” Schoppe wrote.

The workers contend that CCA required guards to work long overtime hours, leaving them fatigued and unable to be of any meaningful use in guarding inmates or protecting fellow officers. The radios that are part of the correctional officer uniforms were often defective, the workers contend, putting them at further risk.

“For example, the Plaintiffs and their fellow employees were forced to patrol the prison for months with radios whose call buttons were not functional and that were nothing more than spring-loaded ‘placebo’ buttons that would issue no signal for help when pressed, leaving them without means to call for assistance in the all-too-likely event of an assault by inmates,’“ Schoppe wrote.

One of the plaintiffs, Leonard King, sustained a concussion when he was beaten by an inmate who had already threatened to attack a correctional officer earlier that day, according to the lawsuit. King contends that his supervisor knew of the threat, but still sent King in alone to move the inmate to a cell without warning him of the danger.

King no longer works at the prison.

“All of the Plaintiffs have been subjected to unreasonably dangerous risks and lethal hazards at ICC as a direct, proximate, and legal result of CCA’s negligence and gross recklessness in operating the ICC prison facility. Unlike King, Plaintiffs Eixenberger, Bravo, and Vasquez have been fortunate enough to have escaped serious physical injury for the most part, but the needlessly intense day-to-day stress of working in such an unreasonably unsafe environment has taken a severe emotional and psychological toll on all of them, and has caused both their professional and personal lives to suffer,” Schoppe wrote in the lawsuit.

The four plaintiffs are asking for damages of at least $1 million each.

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