Inmate death shines light on cellmate pairings at US prisons

By REBECCA BOONEMarketsAssociated Press

Glenn Cox went before the parole board with a plan.

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He had already been accepted into a live-in substance abuse treatment center. For the first time in a long time, he was hopeful about the future.

After reviewing his case, including the 12 drunken driving arrests on his record, the board sent him back to prison with a parole date two years out.

Five days later, Cox was dead.

Prison workers found him in his cell: He was stabbed, beaten and strangled, according to Idaho Department of Correction records obtained by The Associated Press. His cellmate — a triple murderer — is the only suspect.

Cox's death highlights the difficulties faced by corrections officials across the U.S. in determining housing assignments for ever-evolving inmate populations at often-overcrowded prisons.

"I get it when people say, 'Man, how can a DUI inmate live with a convicted murderer?'" Corrections Director Henry Atencio said. "On the surface you wonder — like, 'Yeah, that's kind of weird.'"

Actually, the drunken driver and the triple murderer were only a few points apart on their risk assessment score, a complex number system Idaho and other states use to classify prisoners as minimum-, medium- or maximum-security risks. The system scores inmates in categories such as the crimes they committed and how long they've been behind bars.

Sometimes, however, the numbers lie.

Attorney John Stosich, a family friend who represented Cox in some of his legal proceedings, said Cox was an alcoholic who'd tried and failed to quit drinking before.

"But he also realized, maybe for the first time, he could change his decision-making and improve his future," he said after Cox's September death.

Cox was designated a minimum-security offender but was sent to the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise — a medium-security facility — to wait for a minimum-security bed to open up. Idaho's 10 prisons have been filled to capacity since last year, and the state routinely has about 900 more minimum-security inmates than it has beds.

Prison officials try to manage the shuffle the best they can, an effort Idaho State Correctional Institution Warden Keith Yordy compares to assembling a new puzzle every day.

"One day there's 1,100 pieces in the box. The next day there's 900 pieces in the box. And they don't always fit," he said. "At my facility, we do 15,000 moves a year — and that's a conservative estimate."

James Junior Nice became Cox's cellmate after being moved from another Idaho prison in July. He was 12 years into his life-without-parole sentence and had only four relatively minor rule violations on his prison record.

Nice helped monitor other prisoners on suicide watch and was at the low end of medium in Idaho's security rating system.

He will never reach the minimum security rating because of the horrific nature of his crimes: Nice poisoned his three young children — murders a judge said he committed, in part, out of vindictiveness toward his ex-wife.

Idaho isn't alone in dealing with overcrowding, but some experts say there are better approaches than mixing medium- and minimum-security prisoners in the same cellblock.

Dan Pacholke, a corrections consultant and prison safety expert, advocates placing minimum-security offenders in "discrete housing units" within medium-security prisons. "Mentally, they're all gearing up for release," he said.

The same can be done with units made of military veterans with PTSD or inmates 65 and older, who might prefer earlier bedtimes and quieter shared areas, Pacholke said.

Nice and Cox were alone in their cell when Cox died in the wee hours of Sept. 22. By that afternoon, a coroner determined Cox died of injuries related to an assault.

Nice has been moved to a maximum-security cell. The AP attempted to reach him for comment, but prison officials declined to forward emails and said he wasn't receiving mail.

Officials said the investigation is ongoing but noted Nice is already serving three consecutive life terms without parole.

"The No. 1 thing is the public is safe from him," Sheriff's spokesman Patrick Orr said.

A lot can be learned when inmate housing decisions end in adverse outcomes, said Ryan Labrecque, a Portland State University assistant professor and former correctional officer. His research examines how prison management, personality factors and even the condition of facilities can affect inmate behavior.

In most states, prisoner classification is based on "static" factors such as criminal history, he said. But emerging practice shows the importance of "dynamic" factors, such as inmates' attitudes, friends and work experience.

"It's a science but also a little bit of an art, and we can never stop learning on how we improve how we place offenders," he said.