Editor's note: In anticipation of the hearings on Friday, Feb. 4, and Monday, Feb. 7, when the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee will consider priorities for Idaho's Department of Correction, BW presents a two-part review of Idaho's third largest agency (Fiscal Year 2011 general funds topped $145 million). Here, in part one, reporter Sharon Fisher talked with correction director Brent Reinke about steady inmate populations and ever-increasing turnover of corrections officers.
If your primary experience with prison directors is movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption, then Brent Reinke, director of Idaho’s Department of Correction, will change your mind. While he’s tall, bald and steely-eyed, he also smiles frequently and is forthcoming with information. He’s responsible for about 7,500 prisoners and 14,000 parolees in 10 prisons, two of which are private.
A high-school graduate who worked his way up to department director four years ago after stints in city and county government and juvenile corrections, Reinke talked often about research and the importance of following research-based models. He’s praised for this by Dr. Michael Blankenship, professor of criminal justice at Boise State, who noted that other states persist in offering programs like boot camp prisons and Beyond Scared Straight, which gives younger offenders tours of prisons, even though research found them ineffective.
“We know those don’t work, but [they] continue to fund those things because they’re politically popular,” said Blankenship.
As in most Idaho state departments, its 1,553 employees—primarily corrections officers—have been dealing with pay freezes and furloughs. So starting last fall, Reinke caused a stir by describing an upcoming crisis: turnover rates of more than 20 percent, after spending up to $15,000 for training.
“We like to be in the 10 to 14 percent range—ideally, less than that,” Reinke said. “We acquired a ton of overtime, and we burned some people out. For some people, if they can find a job with no furloughs, and the chance that they might see a pay increase, they’re going to jump.”
Consequently, prison populations have stayed relatively stable, hovering around the 7,500 level instead of reaching the 9,000 level the department had predicted in 2008 it would reach by July 2010 and, in the process, saving $32 million. In addition, all Idaho prisoners are now housed in-state, which Reinke said is both easier on their families and easier for the department to monitor.
Idaho has also had to deal with problems common in other states, such as an aging prison population that can result in higher medical costs. While the department hires a private company to provide health care, and so doesn’t have figures on geriatric care, the percentage of prisoners over 65 has risen from 1.5 in 2000 to 2.2 today. On the other hand, due to managing its incoming prisoners, Idaho has been able to avoid the mass prisoner releases that other states have had to do, Reinke said. The department’s prison and parole procedures were also reviewed last year by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, which issued a number of recommendations for efficiencies.
On the eve of budget setting, Blankenship attributed some of Reinke’s success to his background as a politician, which helps him work better with the Legislature and consequently stay longer in the job.
“Compared to superintendents of state police, who hang on for decades, corrections folks don’t have a long life,” he said.
Editor's note: Part two, in the Feb. 2 edition of BW, will consider how an endangered Health and Welfare budget is tangibly linked to correction, including the real possibility of life-threatening consequences.