A coalition of 17 news organizations across Idaho is asking a federal judge to deny a proposed order that would give private prison company Corrections Corporations of America the power to seal whatever it wants in a lawsuit brought by inmates.
The Associated Press, Idaho Statesman, The Spokesman-Review, The Times-News, KBOI-TV, Idaho Press-Tribune, Post Register, Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Coeur d'Alene Press, Bonner County Daily Bee, Challis Messenger, Shelley Pioneer, Jefferson Star, Pioneer News Group, Idaho Press Club and the Newspaper Association of Idaho filed the motion Friday in Boise's U.S. District Court.
The news organizations contend the protective order sought by Nashville, Tenn.-based private prison giant CCA would severely hamper the ability of journalists to report on the lawsuit. CCA says it needs to be able to hide certain information from public view for security and privacy reasons.
The issue arose in a lawsuit filed by eight inmates at the CCA-operated Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise last fall. The inmates contend that chronic understaffing and mismanagement at the prison led to an attack in which they were jumped, beaten, stabbed and slashed by members of an inmate gang. CCA has denied those allegations and the company successfully argued that two of the inmates couldn't sue because they didn't take all the necessary steps to address their concerns through the prison administrative system by going to the courts.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ruled earlier this month that the remaining six inmates can continue with the lawsuit. Generally, the next step in the lawsuit would be discovery, when both sides share the evidence they have with each other. That allows the attorneys to get a feel for the opposing party's case, helps them make the decision whether or not to reach a settlement before trial, and allows all the attorneys to argue to the judge whether they think specific documents and items of evidence should be allowed or kept out of the trial.
CCA asked the judge earlier this year for a protective order that would allow the company to designate documents and other discovery material confidential if CCA officials believed it was necessary. CCA's attorneys contended that some of the documents would include medical information that could violate inmates' privacy, personal information that could violate employees' privacy, CCA's trade secrets or security information that could hinder the company's ability to keep the Idaho Correctional Center safe.
The attorneys for the inmates, T.J. Angstman and Wyatt Johnson, opposed the order, saying it was too broad and that it amounted to giving CCA a "blank check" to keep everything hidden from view.
The news organizations, represented by Lewiston attorney Charles Brown, said in their motion on Friday that if CCA's request for a protective order is granted, it would make it nearly impossible for reporters to cover the lawsuit. That would violate the public's right to know what is happening in the courts, the news groups contend.
Because CCA operates a state prison, it is acting as a quasi-governmental agency, the news organizations told the judge, and the press and public need to have access to the documents associated with the lawsuit so that they can fully understand and report on the quality of CCA's work operating the state prison and safeguarding the population therein.
CCA's proposed protective order would allow the company to pre-emptively file everything in the case under seal without first having to show that it actually does have a valid security or privacy concern that outweighs the First Amendment rights of the press and the public, Brown said.
"This civil case raises issues of profound concern to the general public," Brown wrote on behalf of the news organizations. "... Drawing a curtain of secrecy behind which the defendants can operate simply does not comport with the requirements of the First Amendment, nor Ninth Circuit case law as to the openness required of our judicial system, but also the openness required of our government."
CCA's operation of the Idaho prison has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism in both a series of federal lawsuits and Idaho Department of Correction contract monitoring documents. Earlier this year, the state asked the Idaho State Police to investigate after an Associated Press investigation showed that CCA's staffing reports to the state were inaccurate and didn't reflect the company's payroll reports. The state investigation is still under way, and CCA has since admitted that the company falsified nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records during a seven-month period last year.