Prisons and Politics: Does Anyone Really Care?

Can the IDOC actually effect change in our prison system?

Now that the Idaho Department of Corrections has reclaimed our prisons to state management, is it time for prison reform? The Criminal Justice Reinvestment interim committee was scheduled to meet last December 17 to discuss when the criminal legislation they passed last year will be effective. They said they are looking for ways to stem the growth of our prison population since we as a state have one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Maybe that’s why we have one of the lowest crime rates in the country, or could there be other reasons why Idaho has such a large prison population.

Just compare Idaho’s rate to those states surrounding us. Here are some statistics from 2010. This includes prisoners sentenced to more than 1 year per 100,000 residents.

  • IDAHO: 472
  • MONTANA: 378
  • WYOMING: 385
  • OREGON: 361
  • NEVADA: 472
  • UTAH: 238

As of yearend 2013 Idaho had the 13th highest incarceration rate in the country. We may have one of the safest states in America but at what cost, and are we really putting away hardened criminals or has our sentencing gotten a bit heavy handed and needs to be looked at and adjusted.

A bad decision from the start.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) took over our prisons in 1997, and tax payers last year were paying them $29 million a year to operate the 2080 bed prison. This contract came to an end earlier this year when it was alleged that CCA was not properly supervising the prisoners while charging the state for no show guards. The prison was likened to a school for gladiators where it was survival of the fittest. No one knows for how long these conditions prevailed, but now the investigation of CCA is in the hands of the FBI. This has proved very embarrassing for the Otter administration, but also for the people who have been in charge of overseeing our prisons operation administratively.

The inherent problem with hiring an outside company to run a prison system is that they are always working from a profit motive not a rehabilitative standpoint. They should have been required to show substantial gains in rehabilitating the inmate population and keeping them safe from bodily harm. The other problem is that they were permitted to contribute to the political campaigns of those who were in a position to hire, fire and evaluate CCA. This is cronyism of the highest order. Companies who are doing business with the state should not be permitted to contribute in any way to political campaigns. Didn’t we learn a lesson with the ENA wifi contract that Superintendent Luna awarded? Now we have the ENA contract awarded by Governor Otter’s good friend Mike Gwartney former head of the Dept. of Administration to Quest. This has turned into the administrations worst nightmare? Political patronage needs to cease and our legislators need to pass laws that prohibit these contributions.

America has higher incarceration rate than any other country.

Prior to 1980 private prisons did not exist, but as a result of President Regan’s War On Drugs the demand for more prison space brought about the private for profit-prison industry. In most cases there is no real incentive for private prisons to push rehabilitative processes as they are getting paid to house the prisoner. In the case of state run prisons the incentive to rehabilitate is an incentive to reduce prison costs and have that money available for other areas of government.

“According to the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013, numerous studies indicated that private jails are actually filthier, more violent, less accountable, and possibly more costly than their public counterparts. The ACLU stated that the for-profit prison industry is “a major contributor to bloated state budgets and mass incarcerations – not a part of any viable solution to these urgent problems.” Both CCA and GEO Group, the two largest operators of private facilities, have been contributors to ALEC, which lobbies for policies that would increase incarceration, such as three-strike laws and “truth-in-sentencing legislation. In addition CCA and GEO Group type companies often sign contracts with states requiring them to fill prison beds or reimburse them for those that go unused, ergo a reason to keep prisons full to capacity. When a profit motive is involved rehabilitative services become a low priority.

The lock em up state.

Idaho has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., and then again the United States is number two in incarceration rates in the world. Idaho’s growth of incarcerations from 2004 to 2007 grew from 6,312 to 7,357 which are a little more than 16%. While from 2007 to 2009 the population remained stable at about 7,300 and then spiked from 2009 thru 2012 to 8033 a 10% increase during a time when budgets were being cut throughout the state in every department. Idaho’s Department of Corrections (IDOC) has been contracting to house our prisoners in other locations including out of state at substantial cost to the tax payers and significant logistics problems for family wishing to visit with these displaced inmates.

These conditions are endemic of the way our prison system has been run and overseen by this and previous administrations. Our prison system was turned over to CCA in 1997 and the citizens of Idaho were told that it made sense both in monetary terms and administratively. This logic is used when people don’t want to deal with a problem. If we are going to have one of the largest incarceration rates in the nation, then we should also be willing to spend the money necessary to help treat and rehabilitate those that are sent to our prisons and in particular those with mental disabilities. We are not saying we should mollycoddle these inmates, but we at least need to treat them humanely in a manner where there is hope that at some point in time they can reenter society and become productive citizens again.

Here is what they were hiding

In the last few months we have had an opportunity to speak with some people who have had first hand dealings with our prison system and were surprised to hear about some problems which have been plaguing this system. We learned that many inmates serve beyond their terms of release because they failed a psychological program called The Therapeutic Community, which each potential parolee has to pass in order to be considered for release. As we understand it, the inmate would be admitted into this program just prior to his or her parole date and had to complete it successfully before being granted a hearing. If they failed the course, then they would have to go back to the beginning and start all over again. What we heard about this Therapeutic program from our source was nothing short of trying to demean prisoners and completely destroy an inmate’s dignity. They would have to do things like dance around like chickens, tying two prisoners together for a day and being encouraged to snitch on their fellow inmates. The inmates call this program “Go Along to Get Along”.

Prisoners held way beyond their sentences.

In some cases prisoners were held many months past their probation times because of so-called minor infractions of rules imposed by this Therapeutic Community program. We even heard from a prominent legislator, that he had personal contact with a family whose son had been held way beyond his parole time because he could not pass this program. It would seem to us that there is something drastically wrong with our parole system and the methodology used to evaluate inmates for release. Our informant said that at one point they had gathered files on over 100 inmates who had a problem in getting released in a timely manner. One has to ask the question, ere these prisoners held longer by the prison system run by CCA for a profit motive by keeping the prisons full or is this an inherent problem within the parole board and the administration of our prisons.

Antiquated parole system.

Another of our sources told us that there is a backlog in the meeting notes of the parole board that goes back 10 years, and that if an inmate or their legal representative would request notes from the last parole meeting on their case it could take an inordinate amount of time to secure these notes. The question is why in a digital age we are paying someone to transcribe these notes into print instead of just digitally recording these sessions and making them available to legal counsel when necessary.

We are incarcerating criminals at an unsustainable rate, and if we continue to do so the citizens of Idaho need to be willing to pay for their confinement and rehabilitation process. We would all like to see this problem go away, but it is not going to happen unless our legislators are willing to find a solution. Unfortunately it seems that no one was willing to grab the bull by the horns except the FBI and even after their investigation they turned up nothing they could legally go after. Our state officials from the Idaho State Police to the prosecuting attorneys really missed the mark in many ways by not doing a timely investigation on our prisons. We don’t know if this was just a botched of job of who was doing what or a political pressured cover up so that no one would ever find out the truth.

The death of a rehabilitation process that was working

Back in 2006 there was a for-profit Christian based program started in our state to rehabilitate those who had been incarcerated. The two gentleman involved put up their own money and bought a series of 19 homes in different communities. They would house released inmates and work with them to bring them back into society as productive citizens. They hired professional certified counselors to work with these former inmates, and they tell us they had a success rate of 85%. It was unfortunate that this program was terminated even though they were getting paid $400 a month to house, feed and counsel these parolees whereas it cost $65.00 per day to keep them in prison. One of the reasons they believe the program was terminated is that many of these rehabilitation homes were located in communities that did not want them in their back yard. Isn’t this the age old problem “NOT IN MY BACK YARD” even though they had no record of problems? Remember that many of these inmates were former citizens of Idaho, many in good standing who had gone astray. Some may have been members of our families or good friends that we knew and associated with. Maybe the real problem was that CCA didn’t like the idea of losing inmates to these homes as it took money out of their pockets. Here was a system that was working and was terminated with no explanation. The two gentlemen who started this program lost millions of their own money because once again bureaucrats made a dumb decision to terminate a perfectly valid program that was turning former criminals into tax paying citizens.

Idaho needs to change how we deal with inmates.

The real question is what will we do to change the inmate situation we currently have, and who in our legislature will lead the charge to reform our prison system now that it is back under State control? To be sure no one was keeping a close eye on what has been happening to our system for many years and neither did anyone care. Rather than trying to find a solution we put our prisoners into the hands of a private company which made a mess out of the situation and duped our state out of who knows how many millions of our taxpayer dollars. Maybe if we spent as much money in the rehabilitation of inmates as we do on arresting them and putting them in prison, we could relieve ourselves of this critical overcrowding situation.

Another way to look at this problem is the more inmates who we can release into a halfway house with work programs that are rehabilitated, the less money we have to spend on keeping these people incarcerated. With a budget of $202 million dollars, $180 million from the general fund for IDOC for 2013, it would seem worthwhile to the citizens of Idaho that reducing that budget by 25% through rehabilitation would mean 50 million more dollars that could be used for education and other purposes.

In any case this problem is now back in the hands of our Corrections Department and our legislators. We are hoping that Kevin Kempf, the new director of IDOC with his 19 years of experience can actually make a difference. We are asking him to fix this mess and come up with solutions to solve this high incarceration and overcrowding problem. Let’s hope he can do so in a timely and responsible manner. The CCA contract was terminated months ago, but we have yet to hear any news on what is being done to change things.

If you know someone who has a family member who has been in a situation where they have been held in prison for an extended time after their sentence, please ask them to contact us. We would appreciate an opportunity to speak with them and help them tell their story.

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