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Unda' the Rotunda

Taking care of thine own convicted; The latest turns in the private vs. public prison debate


Idaho's oh-so-tough-on-crime politicians agree on one thing: It's time to bring the prisoners home.

With some 500 Idaho inmates now being housed in Texas and Oklahoma, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is putting on the full-court press for his plan to subcontract warehousing of inmates to a private prison company.

A trio of Otter officials, including Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke, have been visiting lawmakers in their offices, armed with bound, color spreadsheets showing the cost of future prison building and touting the idea of privatization.

Some powerful legislators are partially resisting the governor, preferring for the state to at least own the ground on which a proposed new prison would sit.

The debate, however, is limited in scope, assuming some form of privatization down the road: Do we want a privately owned and operated prison as Otter advocates or a new state-owned but privately operated lockup as many lawmakers appear to favor?

"I understand the arguments on both sides," said Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee Chairman Denton Darrington, a Declo Republican.

Darrington said that private prisons are easy to sell politically, but carry some baggage: Idaho could become host to hundreds of out-of-state prisoners and their families. A public prison is a hard sell—someone has to pay for it—but leaves the state more in control, he reasoned.

But there are more than two sides here. The Idaho Legislature has accepted the notion that free-market prisons are the way to go, an idea that is about a decade behind the curve, according to many criminologists, Wall Street and people who read newspapers.

For instance, an Associated Press story carried by papers across the world recounted the following dire testimony: "Try to comfort my mum too and try to get her to see that I am truly happy again," wrote Idaho inmate Scott Payne before taking his own life in a private prison in Texas last year. "I tell you, it sure beats having water on the floor 24/7, a smelly pillow case, sheets with blood stains on them and a stinky towel that hasn't been changed since they caught me."

Payne, and others with intimate knowledge of private prisons, will not be able to testify before the judiciary committees.

GEO Group, which ran the prison in Spur, Texas, where Payne died, is a "global leader" in prison privatization, with facilities in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa, as well as across the United States.

You don't get to be a global leader in the industry without doing business the right way, GEO lobbyist Michael Kane said last week. And standards at the company's facilities must comply with state law and negotiated contracts, he added.

Otter's proposal to allow private prison building in Idaho does contain much oversight and what policy makers like to call "sideboards."

According to a summary provided to some lawmakers, new prisons would have to be licensed and permitted through a new Department of Correction licensing board, guards would have to attend the equivalent of the Police Officer Standards and Training academy and a new inspector general for corrections would have full-time oversight responsibilities.

In addition to Kane, there are at least eight lobbyists in Idaho registered to represent prison companies. These companies have made tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Otter, the Republican Party and elected officials on relevant committees (BW, Feature, "Who Holds The Keys?" September 12, 2007). The Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., of which Otter is a devotee, has argued for private prisons for years.

A 2002 Reason Foundation review argued that private prisons were outperforming state and federal prisons and costing less. But an earlier study by the federal General Accounting Office found that the opposite was true. And a 2001 report funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute detailed the many hidden public costs to prison privatization, including below-the-radar state subsidies and tax breaks these companies receive.

While it is no doubt true that a private company could build a prison more quickly than the state, as Otter has argued, it is not clear that more beds are a total emergency.

Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, said that the state is going to need more beds, but that she is more focused on treatment in prison, re-entry programs for inmates, drug court and alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders in the short term. Many of these ideas appear in Otter's budget as well, to various degrees, even as he pushes for a new private prison.

A decade ago, the Legislature allowed for privately run prisons in Idaho. The state spent some $59 million to build the Idaho Correction Center in Kuna, now run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison contractor.

Most everyone who has been there, including Boe, said that CCA has done a good job running the state prison. Boe said one guard told her he felt that he got better training at the state-run prison and felt safer there. And Boise Rep. Nicole LeFavour, a Democrat, said that inmate programming at the privately run prison often lacks qualified personnel and may be run by inmates themselves.

College of Idaho sociologist Robin Lorentzen has been taking students to most of the state's prisons as part of her Prison Experience course.

Her students prefer ICC, the shiny, new, privately run prison, to the old state prison.

"The biggest difference to the eye and the feel of the place has to do with the age of the two facilities," said Lorentzen, who believes that private-sector prisons are not good state policy.

The big picture, she said, is that the United States has the most bloated prison system in the world.

The future, Lorentzen argues, lies in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a politician no one will accuse of being soft on crime, wants to let 22,000 nonviolent inmates out on the streets this year.

Idaho's Legislature makes the laws that put people away, yet lawmakers seem to feel that the state is no longer competent to house or reform these convicts.

Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said the governor wants to end the state's out-of-sight, out-of-mind practice and house Idaho inmates in Idaho. He said the Department of Correction has learned from its mistakes in Texas, and the governor's bill, expected to be introduced soon, contains adequate protections.

But in the end, any company that runs Idaho's future prison will have to wrangle adequate protections for its own profit and shareholders in addition to any protections for prisoners and public safety.

Which may just pass the tough-on-crime buck.