Otter: State to take over privately run prison

The move ends an experiment at a facility that was plagued by understaffing, lawsuits and allegations of contract fraud.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSJanuary 4, 2014 

Idaho plans to begin running the 2,080-bed Idaho Correctional Center, its largest prison, over the next several months, with its $29 million-a-year contract with the Corrections Corp. of America expiring on June 30.

“In recognition of what’s happened, what’s happening, it’s necessary. It’s the right thing to do,” said Gov. Butch Otter at Friday’s 2014 legislative preview for media. “It’s disappointing because I am a champion of privatization.

“ ... It’s the right thing to do. Is it the desirable thing to do for me? Not necessarily.”

CCA said that although there were “challenges” at the prison, located just outside Boise, it has and will continue to be responsive to the state’s concerns. “Despite reported issues, there are overwhelmingly more positive things that have occurred at the facility during our partnership,” CCA said.

An Associated Press report last year raised questions about how the Nashville, Tenn.,-based company was staffing the prison, and the state’s move is part of a larger debate over whether prison privatization works.

Over the past several decades, contractors have been brought in to run prisons, federal lockups and even county-level jails. The number of inmates housed in the facilities grew from 85,500 in 2000 to more than 128,000 in 2012, according to federal statistics.

California officials are expanding their use of private prisons to meet a court order to reduce overcrowding. There’s also been some pushback, with Oklahoma’s corrections director resigning last year in a dispute over the growing use of privatization.

Kentucky transferred about 400 female inmates out of a private prison last year after a scandal involving guards sexually assaulting inmates. Officials in Texas decided not to renew contracts with CCA for operating a state jail and a transfer center amid declining inmate populations.

University of North Florida criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who has written journal articles and a book on prison privatization, said the problems in Idaho reflect those seen nationwide.

“A private prison corporation operates just like an old-fashioned HMO, where the less they spend, the more they make,” Hallett said. “ ... There’s lots of ways to game the system, through contract violations and even just legal contracts to house easier inmates.”

CCA notes on its website that it operates the fifth-largest corrections system in the country, housing nearly 80,000 inmates at more than 60 facilities. The majority, it said, are company-owned complexes; it has contracts with the federal government.

The company has contracted with Idaho to run the prison since it was built in 1997 along Pleasant Valley Road in Kuna, where the state has also built several other corrections facilities.

ICC has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud, and some of the lawsuits have resulted in federal court orders to improve conditions.

Early last year, an AP investigation examining overtime records and staffing reports showed that some of CCA’s reports to the state erroneously showed guards working shifts that were actually left vacant. CCA said last year that there were falsified staffing reports.

In response, the state corrections department asked the Idaho State Police to investigate possible fraud.

CCA officials have acknowledged that about 4,800 hours of guard posts were left unstaffed despite reports showing otherwise, and CCA leaders have promised to cooperate with the investigation and make taxpayers whole for any unverified hours.

Last fall, CCA announced that it wouldn’t bid on the next contract to run the prison.

Another major private prison corporation, GEO Group, also informed the state that it wouldn’t bid on the contract. That narrowed the field of potential private managers dramatically, and the Idaho Board of Correction had to weigh what to do.

For years, Otter has pushed for privatizing certain sectors of government, including prisons.

In 2008, he floated legislation to change state laws to allow private companies to build and operate prisons in Idaho and import out-of-state inmates. He also has suggested privatizing the 500-bed state-run Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino.

Though he noted his disappointment, Otter said, “You will see ... I’m asking the Board (of Correction) to also engage in listing those noncustodial duties at the prison that could be privatized, such as food, education and outreach.”

So now comes a dramatic turnaround for the state.

IDOC Director Brent Reinke had lobbied a few times in recent years to allow the agency to put together its own proposal and cost analysis for running the prison. Each time, Reinke and his staff were rebuffed.

Issa Arnita, a spokesman for private prison company Management and Training Corp., said Idaho’s move is not a sign of things to come.

“We believe there are clear advantages to having states and contractors partner in operating correctional facilities, including cost savings, competition and innovation in offender programming,” Arnita said.

He said he thinks private prison operations will grow.

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