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Idaho inmates sue, claiming overcrowding at state prison

by Rebecca Boone
| May 7, 2020 10:32 AM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A group of inmates at Idaho’s largest prison is suing the state for overcrowding, saying cell blocks are so packed that the prison department can’t maintain sanitary toilets, putting them at risk during the coronavirus outbreak.

In the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Boise, the inmates say lawmakers have failed to adequately fund the Idaho Department of Correction despite a growing inmate population. They say that means cells built at Idaho State Correctional Center to hold two people are now holding four or more. Some offenders are sleeping on cots in cubicles, and all the inmates are getting less recreation time because of the overcrowding and understaffing, the inmates say.

Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray declined to comment on the case because the lawsuit is ongoing.

Two cell blocks originally designed to hold 504 inmates are now housing 824 people, according to the lawsuit that says the overcrowding violates the prisoners' constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Albert Veenstra, the lead plaintiff in the case, has sent several notices to prison officials about the issue, according to documents filed with the lawsuit. In the documents, correction officials appeared to acknowledge a problem.

“The current population levels at ISCC are temporary,” a correctional officer identified only as Greenland in the documents wrote in response to one of Veenstra’s complaints in November. “With that said everyone including IDOC does not feel this is a good level to maintain over a permanent solution... The temporary time frame has not been established.”

When Veenstra asked for center Warden Jay Christensen to review his complaint, the warden agreed with some of the issues Veenstra raised, according to the documents.

“The only viable solution at this point is additional beds,” Christensen wrote.

In the lawsuit, the inmates are asking a judge to immediately order Idaho to reduce the number of inmates at the facility to meet the original capacities. The inmates say the order should be made immediately because of the coronavirus pandemic. Healthcare experts say the virus can spread more easily among large groups of people who live in close quarters.

Idaho had 8,970 inmates on Wednesday, with about 7,000 held in state-run prisons and the rest at county jails and private prison facilities. More than 600 inmates are being held at a GEO Group-run prison in Eagle Pass, Texas. Forty-seven Idaho offenders have been tested for COVID-19, according to IDOC, and so far all of the tests have been negative.

The Idaho State Correction Center has about 2,240 inmates, the Idaho Department of Correction said on Wednesday, about 80 people more than the facility’s official capacity.

Idaho has lost one major prison overcrowding lawsuit. That class action case, dubbed the “Balla lawsuit” after lead plaintiff Walter Balla, has led to federal court oversight for decades. But the ruling in the Balla case applies only to a different Boise-area prison, not the entire state system.

A report by the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations released earlier this year found that Idaho’s prisons are overcrowded and dilapidated, and that taxpayers could save millions of dollars by building a new facility. The report noted that Idaho has seen an 18% increase in the number of prison inmates since 2016, dramatically outpacing the state’s population growth.

State prison leaders have floated the idea of building a new prison in recent years, but the proposals have so far failed to gain traction with lawmakers.