- San Antonio Express-News
Fresh from a trip to a Texas detention facility housing more than 500 Idaho prisoners, two Idaho state lawmakers say the situation in the facility is adequate, and they’re prepared to talk about the state prison system’s housing crisis in the upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell), and Sen. Jim Rice (R-Caldwell) toured the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility last week, Chaney said in a phone interview. He said he and Rice wanted to see the facility firsthand.
“We wanted to be able to see with our own eyes what was happening,” Chaney said.
Part of the reason for the visit, Chaney said, is the fact that Eagle Pass Correctional Facility is run by The GEO Group, a private company. Chaney was candid about Idaho’s history with privately run prisons. In 2014, the FBI investigated the Idaho Correctional Center — mockingly christened “the gladiator school” — after reports of rampant violence created by under-staffing. At the time, the prison was managed by Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America. It’s not affiliated with The GEO Group, but Chaney said he still wanted to make sure nothing similar happened at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility.
- Idaho Legislature
- Rep. Greg Chaney
He’s confident, though, in The GEO Group’s management of the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility.
“I asked them some very point-blank questions related to what went on at (the Idaho Correctional Center),” Chaney said. “We had some very point-blank questions about staffing levels.”
The legislators’ visit took place not long after inmates and inmates’ families began reaching out to the Idaho Press to report concerns with the facility’s conditions, which they said were cramped, as well as a lack of access to health and dental services.
Chaney said he had not heard any of those complaints before his visit. He said The GEO Group has worked well with the Idaho Department of Correction and he’s satisfied with the facility — if he were to grade it, he said, he’d give it a B-plus. He said he felt The GEO Group employees had “done a good job of making sure any lingering renovation issues are tied up.”
“I don’t have a lot of concerns about what’s happening in Texas,” he said.
Rice told the Idaho Press that he was uniquely qualified to have toured the Eagle Pass Facility.
- Idaho Legislature
- Sen. Jim Rice
And “looking” is just part of Rice’s examination of a prison; he also has a smell test.
“You can tell the difference between older and younger facilities by the difference in how they smell,” said Rice. “It’s something you probably don’t understand unless you’ve worked in corrections.”
Rice said he has spent time in all of the correctional facilities south of Boise, plus lock-ups in Orofino and Pocatello.
“But the facility in Eagle Pass smells new. They went through quite a bit; it’s newly painted, newly refurbished, and there’s new air conditioning,” said Rice. “The kitchen is well-kept. I worked as a culinary officer, so I know how those things operate.”
Regarding the new air conditioning, Rice said it was the fault of a contractor who was installing a new HVAC system at the Eagle Pass facility that was responsible for a leak in the prison roof. A number of Idaho inmates transferred to Eagle Pass told the Idaho Press that leaking was a significant issue.
“I read your story. Frankly, I think the inmates that talked to you were exaggerating,” Rice said.
Rice also pushed back against comments from an Idaho prisoner who said he had to pull out his own tooth because he couldn’t wait more than two-and-a-half weeks to see a dentist.
“I don’t believe him,” Rice said. “There’s a dentist at Eagle Pass, 30-hours a week.”
Rice also disputed that Idaho was sending some of its best-behaved inmates out of state.
“They weren’t the best of the best. They’re still inmates,” said Rice. “I don’t think it’s a long-term solution, but you have to do what you have to do because of the situation we have with our current prison population.”
Rice added that he didn’t believe that there was any real appetite at the Idaho Legislature to build a private prison closer to or inside Idaho to help alleviate the problem.
“The fix needs to be an Idaho solution run by the Idaho Department of Correction,” said Rice.
Chaney echoed that sentiment. He said while some have discussed building a private facility in Idaho, if he had to vote now, he would vote in favor of a facility run by the Idaho Department of Correction.
Rice added that he was planning on reporting his findings to Idaho Senate leadership as early as this week.