This editorial was published by the Idaho Statesman of Boise.


On April 10, prisoners at the Idaho State Correctional Center outside Kuna started a fire that filled a room with smoke, broke through a wall and started several fights, injuring at least five people who required hospitalization. Some had been drinking prison-made alcohol.

Two guards responding to an incident in Tier 1 of H-Block called for backup.

One person responded.

“I had one person respond in a unit with 304 inmates and 96 in just this one tier,” one guard told Idaho Statesman reporter Jacob Scholl. “I had one person respond.”

Less than two weeks later, on April 21, the Idaho Legislature printed a bill to cut nearly $400 million from the state budget through ongoing tax cuts and one-time tax rebates.

In less than two weeks, Idaho Republican legislators passed what was hailed as the largest tax cut in Idaho history. It was signed by Gov. Brad Little on May 10.

Meanwhile, staff shortages at the prison worsened, with prison guards quitting, complaining of staff shortages, long shifts of 12-16 hours and required overtime that jeopardized safety.

At the same time, Idaho’s surplus was swelling.

On June 9, state officials announced that the state budget surplus had grown to $800 million. By July, that grew to $900 million.

By the end of the fiscal year in October, the budget surplus had ballooned to $1.5 billion.

All the while, problems at the prison continued.

On Aug. 9, a woman serving as a paralegal was assaulted by an inmate, resulting in injuries to her face and head that required hospitalization. The next day, 22 inmates were involved in a fight after a staff member accidentally opened multiple doors in a housing unit.

Staff shortages were bad enough in April, when ISCC was down 38 correctional staff positions. By September, the staff shortage had grown to 75.

In an effort to alleviate the shortage, IDOC in September increased starting pay for officers from a measly $16.75 per hour to a somewhat better than measly $19 an hour.

Unsurprisingly, the shortage persists. The prison is still short 73 officers.

The Idaho Legislature continues to fail in the most basic functions of government.

Idaho’s public education system is 51st in the nation in per pupil funding. Full-day kindergarten isn’t funded. Idaho is one of the last remaining states without state-funded pre-K. Idaho State Police officers are asking for a pay raise, saying they’re struggling with increasing calls for service and staff shortages. ISP has 18 vacancies among commissioned members, including state troopers, and 20 vacancies for noncommissioned positions. ISP employs 316 commissioned employees, which include troopers and higher-level positions. Pay ranges for state troopers are between $22.81 and $39.93 an hour.

This isn’t some sort of socialist wish list; these are basic government functions. Education, law enforcement and prisons are about as basic as you can get.

And prisons are a special kind of obligation. If the state is going to take people into custody, take away their liberties and put them in prison, the state has a constitutional obligation to keep them safe.

Unfortunately, the situation at the state prison is yet another indication that the Idaho Republican Legislature is falling down on the job of providing basic government services.