Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt told legislative budget writers Tuesday that sending an additional 500 inmates out of state and presumably into the custody of a for-profit private prison is “simply the best of our worst alternatives.”
With all due respect, how could anything be worse?
Earlier last week, the state prison system confined 9,417 people. It had space for about 7,289. That left 419 in the privately managed Correctional Alternative Placement Program, another 849 scattered among county jails, 150 held under long-term contracts with Bonneville and Jefferson county jails, and 651 held in medium-custody lockup at Eagle Pass, Texas. Eagle Pass is operated by the GEO Group.
If the place rings a bell, that’s because Idaho inmates complained about poor treatment there. An inmate from Idaho Falls, Kim Taylor, died in Eagle Pass a year ago. Boise Weekly blamed inadequate medical care.
Private prisons are bad enough. Their business model involves holding down staffing costs, cherry-picking the healthiest, least-disruptive and best-behaved inmates while maximizing occupancy.
But it gets worse if an Idaho inmate is sent 1,400 miles away from his home, his family and his support network. However much Idaho’s officials can keep an eye on what’s going on in Texas, it’s far more difficult for those prisoners’ families in particular and the Idaho public in general.
Which brings us to the less-worst option: a private prison operating in Idaho.
That’s a nightmare Idaho already endured when it hired Corrections Corporation of America — now CoreCivic — to manage the Idaho Correctional Center outside Boise.
Before Idaho showed the contractor the door almost a decade ago, inmate-on-inmate violence at the understaffed prison won it the worldwide reputation as a “gladiator school.” After inmates launched lawsuits, the company drew a contempt of court citation from a federal judge. Paid $29 million a year, CCA had bilked the state for phantom shifts. The state accepted a $1 million settlement without fully probing the depth of the problem.
Only after it canceled the contract and could not attract suitable bids from other contractors did the state relent and take over management of its own prison, since renamed the Idaho State Correctional Center.
But at least all of that history occurred within the state of Idaho, where inmate families, lawyers, judges, lawmakers and the media could watch it unfold in real time and hold their government accountable.
Who knows if what happens in Texas stays in Texas?
If you don’t want to repeat that mistake, there’s always the possibility of building a new state-owned prison. Two years ago, then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s board of correction recommended a $500 million expansion, including a 1,510-bed prison. Otter’s successor, Gov. Brad Little, has steered away from that. In addition to shipping more people out of state, Little proposes adding 160 beds at a community reentry center in Twin Falls and 146 at the Idaho State Correctional Center.
He also wants to invest in Community and Intervention Stations designed to provide support to parolees, thereby avoiding recidivism. That’s a good step forward.
“We can either invest in measures designed to reduce the demand for prison beds and promote safer communities, or we can do nothing and ensure the next check we write is larger than the last,” Little said in his State of the State address.
But reform is lacking in Idaho.
Under the Justice Reinvestment Act, parolees who violated the technical terms of their release — as opposed to committing new crimes — were not routinely returned to prison. They faced a matrix of disciplinary actions within the community designed to keep them on track and out of confinement.
Pressured by prosecutors and law enforcement, lawmakers walked that back, with a consequent rise in parolees getting flopped back into the prison system.
If you want to reduce the prison population, start by revitalizing that program.
You’d also drop the mandatory minimum sentencing regimen applied to nonviolent drug offenders — who make up 35 percent of the prison population.
Last year, Idaho House members voted 48-21 for modest reform — giving judges in a limited number of cases discretion to set aside mandatory minimum sentences — only to have Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Lakey, R- Nampa, refuse to give it a hearing.
If Idaho can’t do that much, what hope is there restoring early release for good behavior, which lawmakers eliminated more than 30 years ago? As the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy noted last week, Idaho is one of only three states — the others are New Hampshire and Nevada — that require people to serve their entire fixed prison sentences.
Idaho is not helpless. It has choices. Why is it skipping over the good, the bad and even the ugly for the truly awful?