OUR VIEW: Otter’s plan for state-run prison a good step

January 4, 2014 

If you believe closed doors at one end of a bad situation can lead to open ones when you head in a different direction, maybe the controversy besetting the Idaho Department of Correction will eventually be resolved.

Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho took a step in the right direction Friday when Otter announced that the state will take over management of a prison that has been operated by Corrections Corporation of America for several years. Taking back control of the prison might lead the Legislature to much-needed prison reforms. We hope it does.

Though we wonder what took Otter so long — the besieged CCA announced months ago that it was pulling out of the deal by July 1, 2014 — it was apparent Friday that the governor and the Idaho Board of Correction had been looking for a way out of the situation and time was slipping by fast. Our editorial board had asked to meet with Robin Sandy, chairman of the correction board, back in October so we could better understand the state’s plans for the Idaho Correctional Center. Sandy declined.

Otter looked pained and expressed disappointment Friday as he delivered the prison news at an annual press briefing hosted by The Associated Press. The event is designed to shed light on the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off at the Capitol on Monday with Otter’s State of the State speech. Seems to us that Otter wanted this news out so it wouldn’t compete with what he has to say then.

The prison decision is a profound about-face for the governor. Otter and not a few of his Republican colleagues long believed that privatization was the preferred and most cost-effective way to manage the 2,080-bed facility located south of Boise. The state has been making $29 million yearly payments to CCA to manage the ICC for about a decade.

But troubling news has been bubbling out of the arrangement for months. As The AP reported Friday, ICC under CCA management “has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud. CCA acknowledged last year that falsified staffing reports were given to the state showing thousands of hours were staffed by CCA workers when the positions were actually vacant.”

We agree with House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, that the ideology of privatization doesn’t always match the reality.

AP’s 2012 analysis of the costs to run the prison found that “any savings compared to state-run prisons were more than offset by other factors, including contract oversight costs.”

Privatization might work in the prison laundry or food service (as Otter hopes it will). But taking control of the management of the inmates and instituting programs to transform inmates could turn a troubled warehouse into a ward where people get back on the road to society and productivity. “To prepare those people for citizen life,” as Otter himself put it.

We encourage the efforts of Senate Judiciary Chairman Patti Anne Lodge and House Judiciary Chair Rich Wills. Otter praised their work on examining reforms that could reduce prison populations, costs and recidivism. Something good can come out of the CCA saga if Otter and the Legislature keep their eyes focused on the open doors that lie ahead.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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