CHEYENNE — The Wyoming State Penitentiary is vastly safer than it used to be, and it's time to lift a court-ordered plan to reduce inmate-on-inmate violence at the prison, Attorney General Pat Crank told a federal judge Thursday.
But an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said the state was only "70 percent" toward fully complying with the 2½-year-old agreement.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer didn't commit one way or the other at the motion hearing and took the arguments under advisement. "I don't think that this court ought to exercise its authority one minute more than is absolutely necessary," he said. "On the other hand, I don't want to shirk my duty to the inmates of that institution."
The remedial plan resulted from an ACLU class action lawsuit filed after inmate Brad Skinner was severely beaten by three other inmates in 1999. Attorneys for both sides negotiated the plan, and it was implemented in October 2003.
Skinner was serving a life sentence under Wyoming's repeat offender law. He was assaulted about a month after arriving at the prison following an assault conviction.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act allows such plans to be lifted after two years. While Crank and deputy attorney general John Renneisen asked Brimmer to lift the plan, ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar argued for six contempt of court motions he'd filed against the state. "It's quite frankly his job to nip and bite at every failing we've had," Crank said of Pevar.
Pevar said several shortcomings at the Rawlins prison remained, including insufficient investigation of assaults, inadequate reporting by staff of possible institutional problems, and failure to investigate and remedy problems mentioned by staff, such as inadequate staffing.
"They are not trying to comply. Indeed, they have taken actions that guarantee failure," Pevar told Brimmer.
Brimmer wasn't quite so harsh. "I believe we've accomplished something," he said. "We had a penitentiary that certainly, when I was attorney general, really was a pest hole." Brimmer was attorney general in the 1970s.
One of Pevar's contempt motions accused the state of not sufficiently investigating two gang-related assaults last year, including one involving up to 20 inmates. "Things have indeed gotten much worse at the prison in the last year with regard to gang violence," Pevar said.
Two other contempt motions said prison staff were still inadequately trained, especially in mentioning possible institutional problems in reports. "I just don't see evidence of adequate training. In fact, I see evidence of inadequate training," he said.
Pevar also accused the state of not promptly investigating staff complaints about insufficient staffing and not promptly looking into dangerous situations created by insufficient staff. And, he said, the prison still didn't do enough to separate prisoners who were on each other's "conflict lists."
Renneisen disputed Pevar's claims, saying the gang assaults were investigated and that the terms of training prison staff were "one of the more troubling provisions" of the plan.
Rather than being just 70 percent toward full compliance, he said, the prison was at "95, maybe 97 percent" and was unlikely to ever reach 100 percent. "I think communication is going on a lot more than Mr. Pevar would have the court understand," he said.