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CCA asks judge to bar media from joining lawsuit

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Private prison company Corrections Corporation of America is asking a federal judge to deny a request from Idaho news organizations to keep documents open in a lawsuit over conditions at a CCA-run prison.

A coalition of 17 news organizations including The Associated Press, KBOI-TV, and the Idaho Statesman asked to intervene in the lawsuit to oppose CCA's request to seal a variety of documents in the case. The coalition contends the protective order sought by Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA would hamper the ability of journalists to report on the lawsuit; CCA maintains the secrecy is needed for security and privacy reasons.

In a document filed Tuesday, CCA contends that news organizations have no First Amendment right to civil proceedings and that the news groups only want to cover something scandalous.

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 has maintained that the safety and security of its staff and inmates are a top priority.

CCA's attorneys have asked U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge for a protective order that would allow the company to designate documents and other discovery material confidential if CCA officials believed it was necessary, and attorneys for the inmates have opposed the order saying it was too broad and amounted to giving CCA a "blank check" to keep everything hidden from public view. The request to intervene by the media groups — including the Post Register, Idaho Press Club, Idaho Press-Tribune, The Times-News, Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, The Spokesman-Review and others — came last month, with the news organizations arguing that because CCA operates a state prison, it is acting as a quasi-governmental agency and so the press and public need to have access to the documents so they can fully understand and report on the quality of CCA's work operating the prison and safeguarding the population therein.

CCA's attorneys counter that the U.S. Supreme Court has never weighed in on whether news organizations hold a First Amendment right to cover civil lawsuits in the same way that they have the right to cover criminal cases.

"Neither the First Amendment nor the common law right-of-access govern discovery exchanged among private parties to civil litigation. Not only is the Media Coalition's motion to intervene premature, but it is replete with conclusory assertions and assumptions, heavy on inaccuracies, and light on applicable law," CCA's attorneys wrote to the court.

CCA also contends that the news organizations want to cover the case because of its scandalous nature and that the organizations are insensitive to the difficulty of running a prison and the need to protect legitimate security concerns.

"It is obvious that the only reason the Media Coalition is concerned about the possibility of exhibits or pleadings being sealed in this case is because it might prevent Coalition members from furthering an agenda, without regard for the sensationalism of the underlying accusations — i.e., to promote a public scandal and gratify private spite," the CCA attorneys wrote.

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 underway, and CCA has since admitted that the company falsified nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records during a seven-month period last year.

Other news organizations in the coalition include the Coeur d'Alene Press, Bonner County Daily Bee, Challis Messenger, Shelley Pioneer, Jefferson Star, Pioneer News Group and the Newspaper Association of Idaho.