Pleasant Valley Road east of Kuna is desolate. On either side are huge gravel pits and vast reaches of high desert specked with hardy shrubs and dry grass. It's also prison row. Dotted across the otherwise barren landscape are signs for the Idaho State Correctional Center, the South Boise Women's Correctional Center and the Correctional Alternative Placement Program—the only remaining private lockup in the state of Idaho.
Opened in 2010, CAPP is a minimum security facility owned and operated by Management and Training Corporation that houses about 430 low- to medium-risk male inmates undergoing treatment for substance abuse or cognitive issues. It's one of four minimum security prisons in Idaho and boasts a 93 percent "graduation" rate, meaning it releases its inmates after they have completed a rigorous regimen.
"Believe it or not, we care," said CAPP Warden Brian Finn, pointing to a brass pin affixed to his lanyard, bearing the acronym BIONIC—a motto of sorts for MTC.
In mid August, the Department of Justice issued a directive to the federal Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out contracts with private prison companies, following a report that showed their facilities were more violent than their public counterparts.
Following the announcement of the DOJ's directive, the fallout was swift and severe. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in America, saw its stock fall 40 percent within hours of the opening bell on Wall Street. For its part, MTC—the third largest prison contractor in the country behind CCA and Geo Group—pushed back at the directive: "bas[ing] this decision on cost, safety, security, and programming is wrong," the company stated in a release. "The majority of inmates in contract prisons are from one country which brings inherent increased risk of violence."
Prison industry watchers, meanwhile, were quick to declare private prisons a failure.
"That type of model hasn't worked. We don't believe it's a model that leads to the protection of the civil rights people have," said ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales.
- Kelsey Hawes
Riders on the Storm
The inside of CAPP looks like a middle school. Polished concrete floors radiate from a central security booth toward communal living areas, classrooms, restrooms, medical, segregation and the kitchen. Inmates spend their days in classrooms decorated with murals featuring nature scenes and pop culture images alongside encouraging slogans, including one attributed to Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter: "They need love the most when they appear to deserve it the least."
Much of the criticism surrounding the private prison system has been focused on violence and lack of oversight. Finn said violence and incarceration-related problems at prisons aren't a matter of if, but when.
"Bad things are going to happen in this business," he said. "That's what we measure ourselves on: How we respond to issues."
Because CAPP is a minimum security lockup for those undergoing substance abuse and behavioral programs, however, it's in a different class of prison with a different set of problems. When asked about a relatively high number of complaints regarding food service at CAPP, Finn explained that a good number of them were related to offenders' displeasure with the water-to-juice mixture served with meals. The matter was resolved only after extensive tweaking of the ratio.
"I spent more time on juice... you have no idea," Finn said.
Of a more serious nature, in the past 24 months there have been 175 incidents of violence requiring disciplinary action at CAPP, compared to 155 at the North Idaho Correctional Institution (pop. 414), 140 at the South Idaho Correctional Institution (pop. 565) and 36 at the Saint Anthony Work Camp (pop. 242)—all of which are all-male, minimum security facilities.
The number of violent incidents requiring disciplinary action at the facility ranged from four to 14 incidents per month between August 2014 and December 2015. In January 2016, CAPP began accepting parole violators transferred from crowded county jails, and there was a spike of disciplinary actions clustered in sexual activity, "bodily fluids" and harassment categories.
The new group, which Finn said is not required to take part in programming, disrupted the other offenders participating in rider programs, which make up the bulk of CAPP's population.
The situation is far from ideal, Finn said, but he doesn't foresee it being permanent.
CAPP has a wholly different atmosphere from a general population facility. There are 351 rider inmates at the facility, and the classes they take part in range from substance abuse avoidance training to life skills. Programming lasts from 6:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. almost daily and class sizes were recently reduced from 20 inmates to 10, allowing them more time with instructors and therapists. Since CAPP opened in 2010, 5,573 people have been through the program—1,727 in the past two years.
"There's a lot of busy days, a lot of programming," said Finn, who cruised the halls like a school principal during a recent visit, ducking his head into various classrooms to say hello. "The more busy they are, the less they get in trouble—more recreation, more activity, stuff like that."
- Kelsey Hawes
- Since Idaho’s Correctional Alternative Placement Program opened in 2010, 5,573 people have been through the program—1,727 in the past two years.
DoJ vs. Private Prisons
The DOJ directive against contract renewal for private prisons came on the heels of a damning report by the Office of the Inspector General that concluded contract prisons under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Prisons were less safe and subject to less oversight than their BoP counterparts. It found contract prisons to be comparatively poorly staffed, a contributing factor to numerous prison riots between 2008 and 2015, resulting in extensive property damage, injury and, in one case, the death of a corrections officer.
After a riot at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas, BOP declared the facility "uninhabitable" and terminated its contract with its operator, MTC.
Private prisons were initially billed as a way to save money, but BoP contracts don't require the companies operating them to itemize expenses. Between 2011 and 2014, expenditures from contract BoP facilities increased from $562 million to $639 million—approximately 13.7 percent—and the DoJ's report was "not able to analyze and compare costs incurred ... between the contract prisons and BoP institutions."
On a per-inmate basis, contract prisons are cheaper. In the four years of the DOJ study, the per-capita annual cost of detaining a BOP prisoner rose from $23,780 to $25,251. During the same period, the cost at private prisons decreased from $22,951 to $22,159. At the time, 14 BOP facilities run by three private corporations housed approximately 27,000 inmates.
For Morales, with ACLU-Idaho, the rising cost of operating contract prisons and the decreasing cost of housing prisoners in them is a red flag.
"I think the reality of what we have seen is that [contract prisons] have been more costly," he said.
The review boiled down to two recommendations: 1. convene a group of experts to analyze contract prisons' safety records; 2. improve oversight and monitoring of them. Instead, the DOJ announced it would begin phasing out private contracts at 14 BOP sites after a nearly 30-year, multi-billion dollar partnership. By 2017, three such lockups could close, reducing the number of federal inmates at the remaining facilities to fewer than 14,200—less than half the high of nearly 30,000 inmates in privately run prisons in 2013.
"It's been a long time coming," said Brett Burkhardt, a sociology professor at Oregon State University.
The DOJ announcement was a blow to the contract prison industry, but not a fatal one. The directive to phase out private BOP prisons didn't include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lockups—a prison system for illegal immigrants overseen by the DOJ but subject to a different set of rules from BOP facilities. According to the Government Accountability Office, ICE housed nearly 400,000 people every year by 2014 but owned 11 percent of prison beds. Another 18 percent of those beds are in six for-profit prisons.
However, DHS signaled on Sept. 5 that it would review its private-contracted facilities.
"The Department of Justice announced that the Bureau of Prisons will reduce and ultimately end its use of private prisons," Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson announced in a department news release. "I directed our Homeland Security Advisory Council ... to evaluate whether the immigration detention operations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement should move in the same direction."
Private prisons have long been features of Idaho's political landscape. According to campaign finance records, Otter received $10,500 from Corrections Corporation of America between 2009 and 2012. Those contributions haunted the governor during his 2014 re-election campaign, when his opponents, Democrat A.J. Balukoff and Libertarian John Bujak, accused the incumbent of appointing "his buddies" to oversee the collapse of the Gem State's relationship with CCA.
In 2013, CCA handed over the Idaho Correctional Center and a $1 million settlement to the state of Idaho for understaffing the state lockup to the tune of 4,800 hours during a seven-month period. Months before, eight inmates at the facility filed suit against CCA, alleging it had colluded with prison gangs to control the facility. The string of controversies eventually landed CCA in the crosshairs of the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the state of Idaho, but no charges were ever filed.
The fiasco ended CCA's relationships with the state, but Idaho politicians still have financial relationships with the contract prison industry. Otter received $10,000 from MTC between 2010 and 2014. Other recipients of MTC contributions include House Judiciary Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Rep. Rich Wills (R-Glenns Ferry) ($250) and fellow committee member Rep. Luke Malek (R-Coeur d'Alene) ($250).
Though the governor's office had no comment on the DOJ's directive regarding private prisons, Otter Press Secretary Jon Hanian wrote in an email, "The point is campaign contributions play no part in operational decisions."
Beyond campaign contributions, Utah-based MTC has a lobbying arm in Idaho: Martin Bilbao and Mckinsey Lyon of Gallatin Public Affairs. The private prison industry has also been linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helped draft Arizona's controversial SB 1070, one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country and a feeder for ICE prisons. Morales and Burkhardt said contract prison corporations have sophisticated, well-placed means for affecting policy both nationally and locally.
"The reality is, [private prison corporations] have a sophisticated lobbying arm that makes a difference to policy," Morales said. "If it didn't, why else would they continue to invest?"
No matter what, changes are coming for private prisons—whether it's moving to a pay-for-performance model to better align costs with expenditures, as Burkhardt said, or closing shop.
The relationship between CAPP and IDOC has been described as "shoulder-to-shoulder," but when asked if the DOJ directive could be a factor in whether MTC's Idaho contract is renewed in 2020, IDOC spokesman Jeff Ray said it's possible.
"Yes, we'll consider the DOJ's action—in the same way we try to take into account all information that's relevant to this matter," he wrote in an email. "That goes for any decision the department makes."
- Kelsey Hawes
- CAPP Warden Brian Finn