Idaho considering spending $500 million on prison expansion
BOISE, Idaho —
With all of Idaho’s prisons above capacity, county jails packed full and hundreds of Idaho inmates being held temporarily at a private jail in Texas, what Idaho needs is a $500 million prison expansion, including a new 1,510-bed state prison, the state Board of Correction was told Monday.
“I think it’s time,” said board member Dr. David McClusky.
“We don’t have the option to do nothing,” said board Chairwoman Debbie Field. “We have to do something. That’s our only option.”
At the board’s request, corrections officials presented a detailed proposal for the new prison, plus smaller expansions at an array of existing Idaho lockups. All are aimed at providing the 2,400 new prison beds that forecasts show Idaho will need by the end of 2022.
“Our population is just skyrocketing right now,” said state Corrections Director Henry Atencio.
Among the biggest drivers of that: Drugs.
Just 20 percent of those newly sentenced to Idaho prisons in the past year were convicted of violent crimes. Half came in on drug offenses.
And those newly sentenced criminals weren’t even the biggest group heading behind bars in Idaho. Nearly twice as many were parole violators, and most of them had committed new felony crimes — with drug possession accounting for three-quarters of those new charges.
“Maybe we look at not incarcerating so many people,” blurted Corrections Board member Cindy Wilson. “Seriously, we have no control over who comes into our system. As an agency, we just get who comes in.”
Idaho House Judiciary Chairman Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who participated in Monday’s board meeting along with Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said lawmakers are looking into making sentencing changes as part of the ongoing justice reinvestment initiative. “We want to be tough, but we want to be smart,” he said.
“Especially with these drug crimes,” Wilson said. “I mean, incarcerating people because they have an addiction doesn’t work.”
Luker said, “Does the penalty fit the crime? That’s part of what we’re looking at.”
After an intensive examination of all of Idaho’s current prison facilities and demands, Atencio and his staff proposed that the entire new 1,510-bed prison be devoted to special needs, from infirmary beds and mental health units to protective custody, a dementia and Ahlzheimer’s unit, and a relocated and expanded reception and diagnostic unit, through which every new state inmate passes for evaluation and classification.
“It makes some sense to put all this together under one facility,” Luker said.
That would allow up to 900 beds at existing state prisons to be repurposed as those functions move out, and open them up to the general prison population.
The new prison would cost an estimated $439 million, plus another $28 million or so each year to operate and staff.
The proposal also calls for building a new community re-entry center in North Idaho, joining several already located in southern Idaho and one currently in the works in Twin Falls, for inmates who are nearing release and are starting to work jobs in their communities and earn restitution money; a 100-bed expansion at the St. Anthony Work Camp, where an old elementary school could be purchased and converted into a cellblock; and doubling up of beds at the existing Correctional Alternative Placement Program, to increase its capacity from 432 beds to 864.
Field said she wanted to gather information about the potential for the new prison being private or state built and operated, but other board members and Luker spoke out against any private-prison option.
Wilson said she didn’t mind gathering information, but said she — and the board as a whole — feels strongly that the state should own and operate its prisons.
Luker agreed. “From a political and practical standpoint, we’ve been through the private-prison process. It’s a negative out in the public at this point. We had a fail on that,” he said.
In 2014, the state took over operation of the Idaho State Correctional Center south of Boise, after first having it built and operated for more than a decade by Corrections Corp. of America. The move came amid multiple lawsuits over rampant violence and gangs at the privately run prison, an understaffing scandal and a $1 million settlement. In 2016, CCA changed its name to Core Civic.
“Corrections is one of government’s core responsibilities, and it should be in-house,” Luker said. “From a legislative standpoint, from a constitutional standpoint even, I think it needs to be in-house. … I don’t think the public’s going to like going down that road again.”
Lobbyists for private prison firms were among those in the audience at the meeting.
Field said the expansion proposal makes sense. “We’re not building a Taj Mahal here — we’re filling our needs, and doing it very methodically.”
Atencio said, “In the meantime, as we go through this process, we’re going to have to keep inmates out of state.” As the smaller expansions are completed, he said, “we’ll evaluate and move folks back best we can. But we’re probably looking at having people out of state for two to three years, before everything’s in place and we can move folks back.”
The board plans to meet again in two weeks and take a formal vote on the prison expansion plan; budget proposals must be submitted to the governor by September. Lawmakers could consider the proposal in January.
Idaho now has about 570 state inmates housed in county jails around the state, but Pat Donaldson, chief of management services for the Idaho Department of Correction, said IDOC is “getting demands from the county jails asking us to remove our offenders. … They’re feeling the pressure too.”
Idaho currently has 250 inmates in a private Texas lockup run by the GEO Group, Karnes County Correctional Center, and another 56 scheduled to head there soon. Corrections officials have identified another Texas facility, also operated by the GEO Group, that’s a vacant prison that could take 500-plus Idaho inmates starting in August. Donaldson said the idea is to transfer Idaho inmates from the current Texas location, which has no programming or even indoor recreation, to the new site, called Eagle Pass, but some might still need to be housed at the current one.
Inmates who are sent out of state are the “cream of the crop,” lacking medical problems or disciplinary violations. The state has to agree to that condition in its contracts to make the arrangements affordable. “It hardens our facilities — we have that tougher-to-manage inmate population,” Atencio said. “This is not a desirable situation for us to be in at the end of the day, but we have to make decisions on who’s going to go.”
Luker said he worries that the best-behaved inmates are essentially being punished by being sent far from their families; he said he’s heard that complaint from constituents.
“We agree, we think they all do better when they can see their family,” Field said. “We’re just between a rock and a hard place right now.”