Prison roughs up inmates

State says private jail must improve treatment of prisoners

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2000

The state has ordered a private prison in Arizona to stop roughing up Alaska prisoners housed there.

That order came out of a continuing investigation of an incident at the Corrections Corporation of America's private prison in Florence, Ariz., which holds 865 inmates from Alaska. State officials also ordered the prison to change its procedures.

In early March, traces of marijuana were found in a dozen or so urine samples taken from inmates in the Alaska housing area of the prison, according to Bruce Richards, program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

A search of the unit was performed and prisoners were roughed up by members of the prison's Special Operations Response Team, known as SORT, similar to a police force's SWAT team.

The state then told the prison's warden to end the use of SORT teams during shakedowns of the housing unit holding Alaska prisoners -- unless there's a violent situation brewing or occurring.

Richards said Alaska inmates reacted out of confusion and surprise to the aggressiveness of the SORT team. Then, he said, the SORT team did the same. There were no reports of serious injuries to prisoners, though there were scrapes and abrasions, Richards said. One prisoner sustained a sprained shoulder.

``It's not how we do things in Alaska,'' said Richards, who noted Alaska correctional officers are trained to use less confrontational methods. ``They (the prison company) used techniques we don't use anywhere.''

Scott Taylor, an Anchorage lawyer who represents some of the Alaska prisoners held in Arizona, said he heard the same complaints.

``SORT teams are used, generally, for violent, confrontational episodes,'' Taylor said. ``It's trained to respond to specialized incidents where they need to regain control of the facility. A search is more routine.''

Taylor said he heard about the incident from inmates.

One was Michael Tebo, 36, serving 25 years for a second-degree murder conviction in Palmer. He sent a letter to the FBI, claiming his surgically repaired shoulder was damaged during the search, as he was pushed into a wall.

Another was Jon Woodard, 35, serving a 66-year prison term for second-degree murder in Anchorage. He reported he was ordered into a very painful position by guards dressed in riot gear and sporting face masks, batons, pepper spray and a tear gas grenade launcher.

Woodard said a back problem was made worse and his rights were violated during the search, since he was punished without evidence he'd done anything wrong.

The state, Taylor said, doesn't generally offer information about inmate incidents in Arizona or Alaska. He said Corrections Corporation of America doesn't like it when such incidents take place or make the news.

``Their stock drops,'' Taylor said. ``They're ever careful of their public image for profit reasons.''

Alaska spends about $20 million a year to house inmates at the private prison to lessen crowding at Alaska prisons.

CCA spokesman Susan Hart said a review of the March incident is ongoing. Marijuana, she said, was found during the shakedown, though the specific information about the find, including whether or not a prisoner was charged for possession, wasn't available.

``The shakedown was conducted because there was contraband in the unit,'' Hart said. ``It is a standard procedure that whenever there's a shakedown, there is an internal review.''

The company, she said, has agreed not to use SORT teams in future shakedowns. The use of such a team in March was either a part of the team's training or because the situation called for the use of the unit, Hart said.

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