Russ Fulcher on Idaho’s prison challenges

Where the candidates stand

April 6, 2014 

Russ Fulcher

The failure of Idaho to properly manage the private prison is just one in a string of scandals that proves it's time for new leadership. The botched private prison operation came at great cost. It is a case study of how the current administration appears to have turned a blind eye to horrific violence and abuse of taxpayer money.

When the Legislature voted to let Correctional Corp. of America (CCA) run Idaho's largest prison, it was generally believed the move could save taxpayers money and protect public safety. Instead, due to lack of oversight and leadership, CCA appears to have ripped off taxpayers by billing for unworked hours, understaffing prisons and encouraging violence. According to reports, there were times when just two guards supervised as many as 350 inmates.

These are problems the governor should have taken seriously. He didn't. Concerns about CCA surfaced in 2008, when court documents indicated that the Idaho Department of Correction found that prison gangs were operating openly and that there were four times as many assaults at the private prison compared to all other Idaho prisons. CCA officials downplayed problems and dragged their feet investigating assaults - behavior that put vulnerable inmates at risk.

Our governor's response to this was silence. A state investigation we presumed was underway turns out was not. On Feb. 7, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden called for the state police to investigate. I also called for an investigation. The governor said no. Just days later, the governor reversed course. He took the right action, but it took prodding to get him there. Remarkably, on the very day our governor changed his mind, a $1 million agreement between CCA and the state went into effect absolving CCA of any liabilities from its understaffing. The agreement has been sealed from public disclosure.

Ultimately, no one is being held accountable. If all of this sounds familiar, it should. The scandals at the prison, the Department of Juvenile Corrections, the Tax Commission, the Idaho Transportation Department and the Department of Administration have one common theme: No one is held accountable.

The CCA scandal fits with our governor's approach to public policy: Do nothing to confront looming issues.

In 2004, for example, about 40 percent of Idaho inmates were released on time. By 2008, that number had fallen to 17 percent. In 2010, a legislative committee released the report "Increasing Efficiencies in Idaho's Parole Process." Among other things, the report recommended reducing staff workload, improving technology, improving communication between the prison and parole officials, and establishing a grievance process for parole staff to ensure staff is treated fairly. Our governor rejected the report and said the status quo works well. Once again, our governor turned away from recommendations to change.

The Council on State Governments (CSG) reviewed the prison system in 2013. It found a person convicted of a nonviolent offense in Idaho could expect to spend twice as much time behind bars here than in other states. CSG recommended reforms, which the governor said he supported, but he included nothing in his budget for implementation.

As governor, I will support reforms that improve our prison system, save taxpayer money and protect public safety. Idaho should save expensive prison space for inmates who are a danger to society. This means reforming sentences so that people who violate our laws are appropriately punished without compounding the crime against taxpayers with long and unnecessary prison sentences. It means reforms that keep people from being warehoused when they should be receiving treatment.

These strategies have been proven to work in other states, and they can work in Idaho, too, with the right leadership.

Fulcher is an Idaho state senator who represents Meridian.

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