Twice a month the Idaho of Department Correction’s in-house SWAT team — called Correctional Emergency Response Team, or CERT — heads to the shooting range to hone its skills. It is a tight-knit, 20-member group that must always be at the top of its game even though it rarely gets any game time.
“They are my insurance plan. If something goes bad, they are the first team I am calling,” said Idaho Department of Correction Director Kevin Kempf.
Last week Kempf dropped in to watch the unit practice its crowd-control procedure — a tactical maneuver in which members move with surgical precision to gain control of an unruly prisoner or rioting inmates.
After completing the maneuver, the members gathered to remove their gear and discuss how the drill went.
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“So is it a new era at the prison? Are things changing?” a Statesman reporter asked.
The response: a rousing “Yes!”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
The Idaho Department of Correction has its first new director in seven years and its first new prison board chair in nine years.
In December, the Idaho Board of Correction selected Kempf to replace retiring director Brent Reinke.
Gov. Butch Otter in January appointed Debbie Field chairwoman of the prison board, replacing retiring chair Robin Sandy. Field declined to be interviewed for this story.
Kempf joined the department in 1995 as a correctional officer at Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center. He went on to serve in a variety of positions, including parole officer, investigator, section supervisor, district manager, warden, chief of prisons and deputy director.
As director, Kempf oversees IDOC’s operations: its nine prisons, four community re-entry centers, and seven probation and parole districts. IDOC is the state’s second-largest department, with 2,000 employees and an annual budget of $228 million.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Upon taking the helm, one of the first things Kempf did was gut headquarters. He cut 15 jobs — almost 10 percent — and moved them to the front lines of probation and parole, where they are needed most.
His next big move was to close Unit 24, a warehouse converted almost 10 years ago to house 204 inmates. “It was unsafe for inmates and staff,” Kempf said.
Eliminating beds is not something the prison wants to do right now. It is at near capacity and it has been trying to find a way to bring back the 200 Idaho inmates being housed in Colorado due to lack of beds in Idaho. But Unit 24’s dangerous conditions could not be ignored.
“It had to be closed,” Kempf said.
Last month Kempf banned “dry cells” — those with no mattress, sink or toilet used for solitary confinement — because “it was simply the right thing to do.”
“Research is showing us that, in many cases, segregation doesn’t work and is causing more harm than good,” he said.
Kempf announced Thursday that based on an outside assessment, all prison “therapeutic community” programs would be halted immediately because the “shaming culture” is ineffective, outdated and yields higher recidivism than other inmate-treatment programs.
Though Kempf clearly has wasted no time wielding his power, he downplays the magnitude of his position.
When it comes to managing nearly 8,000 inmates and more than 14,000 probationers and parolees, Kempf said he knows full well who really gets that job done: the staff.
‘NOTHING TO HIDE’
Kempf also wants to pull back the curtain on IDOC.
Over the past couple of years, the state grappled with a private prison contractor scandal. While a federal investigation found Corrections Corporation of America’s actions did not warrant federal criminal charges, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson noted a series of “miscommunications and uncorrected assumptions” between Idaho State Police and IDOC.
Kempf said, and records confirm, that he did not attend meetings between IDOC, CCA and ISP. Management of the private prison contract was not under his purview, he said. When problems with CCA surfaced, he said, “It was such a significant issue, it rose straight to the director.”
Kempf said he would have taken the same steps Reinke did upon learning that CCA might be falsifying time sheets: Conduct an internal audit to verify discrepancies, hire an outside firm to conduct a full audit and ask the State Police conduct an investigation. That’s when things started to unravel; ISP conducted no such investigation even though for nearly a year Reinke and other state leaders assumed it was.
The lesson, Kempf said, is increased transparency and keeping communication lines open.
One of the first things Kempf did to open communication lines is extend an open invitation to all 105 lawmakers to tour any prison facility at any time, without notice.
Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, took Kempf up on his offer. She called him to schedule a tour and find out the protocol.
There was none.
“He said, ‘You’ve got your ID, you want to go, you go.’ And I did it,” she told the Statesman.
She showed up unannounced at the Pocatello women’s prison.
“I showed my Senate ID, put my stuff in a locker and we were off,” she said. “I had access to staff and inmates alike. … I had 500 questions.”
She was pleased with the candor and access, she said. “Women that were incarcerated were able to talk freely to me. I thought the facility looked good. I did not feel like anything covert was happening,” she said.
Buckner-Webb said that was the first time she had received an invitation for unfettered access to the state prisons.
“They did not put on their dress-up clothes for me. It was not a canned tour. … I thought that was the height of transparency,” she said.
“I think we are going to see a new day around here.”
‘FACING OFF IN COURT’
One group that has been pushing IDOC to change its ways is the ACLU of Idaho, which is waging a legal battle against state prison conditions.
Kempf recently took ACLU staff on a tour of the prison’s segregation, death row and execution units.
“Although we appreciate Director Kempf’s efforts to increase transparency, and we have a growing relationship with him that we hope will continue to be productive, there are still very grave issues in Idaho’s prisons that we are investigating,” said ACLU of Idaho legal director Richard Eppink. “We hope IDOC’s reluctance to work with the ACLU at the program and policy level will soon come to an end under this new director’s leadership.”
Kempf said he is committed to opening the dialogue with ACLU, and his recent decisions to ban dry cells and close Unit 24 are indicative of his commitment to inmate safety and humane treatment.
“I want to partner with the ACLU instead of facing off in court,” Kempf said.
Idaho State Correctional Institution Warden Keith Yordy agrees with pulling back the curtain.
“I think we are trying to move in a direction of much greater transparency,” said Yordy, who joined IDOC in 1986. “Our staff is very proud of the work we do. It is a difficult job. But we do it with professionalism.”
Yordy said the department realizes that much of the community doesn’t understand what it does.
“I appreciate the fact that our director is wanting people to come out and see what we do,” he said. “Contrary to what some folks think, we really have nothing to hide.”
IDOC and Kempf acknowledge the dark clouds and the fact that the system is still reeling from the CCA debacle, which resulted in the state taking over the privately run prison last year. The prison remains under court-ordered monitoring stemming from a three-decades-old lawsuit over inmates’ access to medical and mental health care.
But Kempf is not cowering under those clouds. “I believe with transparency and a lot of hard work we are going to be OK,” he said.
Kempf unplugged: 20 questions
Since becoming director, how have things changed for correction officers and staff?
Thanks to our Governor’s Office, the Legislature and former Director Brent Reinke, our uniformed security staff in our prisons and community reentry centers received a pay raise. It’s called the security retention plan. Director Reinke did a lot to speak to the issue of increased pay. As far as all staff, I hope they have a clear understanding of our mission and where we are going as an agency. Prior to creating our strategic plan we visited every prison, district parole and probation office and community reentry center in the state. We gathered our staff and listened to what they were saying. We recently implemented an employee satisfaction survey that allows all staff an opportunity to express what they see is working well and what isn’t. Over 65 percent of our staff filled out the survey. After listening to our staff and gathering survey results we created our strategic plan and identified three goals for the agency. Based on these findings each leader across the state, including myself, has created an action plan that addresses the areas that our staff see as needing to improve. Areas like the desire for increased professional development for staff and increasing our recognition for staff who are doing great things. These action plans will now be a part of each leader’s yearly evaluation. We have also implemented a promotional ceremony for all new leaders in agency and developed a training session for all new leaders. This training is being taught by either myself or Deputy Director Henry Atencio. It allows us to get in front of each new leader and teach them their expectations.
How have things changed for inmates?
Frankly, our focus over the first nine months has been on our staff. I believe strongly in making sure our staff understands the expectations of the agency and how they fit into accomplishing our goals. Moving forward inmates and their families can expect a department that is open, fair, and seeking ways to partner. For instance, each prison will soon establish a forum that invites families who visit inmates to meet face to face with our wardens. This will be done at least monthly. Again, under Director Reinke’s leadership we began the process of partnering with inmates and their families. We will be utilizing technology to increase communication between inmates and their loved ones at home. As you know we are in the process of reviewing our policies and practices on restrictive housing in our prisons. We are also starting the justice reinvestment initiatives. This will have a positive impact to our offender population in the community and in our prisons.
One of the first things you did was reorganize and reduce positions at headquarters. Why?
Knowing we had several significant challenges ahead of us — implementing justice reinvestment, the Balla case, our I.T. and data issues, etc. — we needed to ensure our resources were where they needed to be and that our reporting structure was efficient. Through the assessment we discovered the need to eliminate some positions in our central office and move them to the front lines. We are statutorily driven to provide supervision to offenders in the community and it was clear we needed to dispatch resources there. The positions that we eliminated in central office became probation and parole officers, drug and alcohol counselors, and other positions that will focus on reentry in the community. We also found that our education, treatment and reentry division was causing confusion with our staff and complexity with our decision making. We eliminated the division and moved those important functions under the divisions they were impacting. We have already seen significant improvements by making this decision.
IDOC has recently stepped up its social media game – it is active on Facebook and Twitter and it has a more robust website. Why the change?
First, I love social media. It provides us a way to show off what are staff are doing. When we post things to Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube our staff, their friends, and family get to see and share. Increased use of social media also allows us to communicate with inmate families. For instance if for some reason visiting is closed in Orofino, we are announcing that as soon as possible on Twitter and Facebook so families don’t drive several hours only to find visiting is closed. We also see it as a way to open up our agency to the public. To some degree our industry of corrections in the United States has suffered from being closed off to the public. When this happens we allow television or movies to define who we are. We have too many amazing people doing amazing things for us not to try and change this perception. Simply put, we’re proud of what we do and think the public will be as well when the curtain is pulled back.
Soon after becoming director you extended an open invitation to lawmakers to drop in any time unannounced and tour the prison. You also took the American Civil Liberties Union, which for years has been challenging IDOC’s prison conditions, on a prison tour. Why are you pulling back the curtain?
We believe our stakeholders (Governor’s Office, Legislature, Judiciary, Parole Commission) should have full access to the areas they provide funding to. Our statewide leaders have been given the expectation that these officials are to be given unfettered access to whatever they want to see. Why are we doing this? Because we are sure they will find three things when they visit: 1. We have confidence they will see things that will totally warm their hearts. They will see staff who are motivated by a deep purpose to serve. 2. They will see inmates, probationers, and parolees who are trying to change their lives. Overcoming addiction and changing the way you think requires significant work and help from everyone around them. 3. And lastly we know they will see areas within our system that need to be fixed and improved. Heaven knows we are not perfect. Our overall goal is to get our stakeholders, our inmates, and our staff to have confidence that we will be transparent to our mistakes and committed to improving at all levels.
A couple months after becoming director, you decided to close the 204-bed Unit 24 and on Sept. 1 you announced a ban on dry cells. Why?
Unit 24 was a warehouse we converted into inmate housing several years ago. It was meant to be temporary housing but over the years it remained in place. The environment was not safe for staff or inmates. I would be remiss if I didn’t express appreciation to our Governor’s Office and Legislative Service Office. We appreciate that this didn’t become a political or fiscal issue and that everyone involved focused solely on protecting staff and inmates. The decision to abolish dry cells was simply the right thing to do. Our agency will be progressive in its thinking, will demonstrate care and concern for everyone, and will be responsive to what research is telling us. Certainly the Balla issue brought this to light.
What other changes are in store?
In February of this year we asked the Council of State Governments to conduct an assessment of each of our treatment programs in our prisons and community. It’s called the Justice Program Assessment (JPA). They began their work in March and will finish at the end of September. Our overall goal is to have a team of professionals from outside of our agency make sure that our programs are evidenced based and working as our Judiciary and Parole Commission expect them to work. We are very excited to see the results of JPA and the potential of improving our system if they find it’s needed.
When you took the helm as director you inherited some hefty baggage – the private prison contract scandal and a three-decades-old lawsuit over prisoner health care. What message do you want to convey about these two issues that have cast a negative light on IDOC?
First, allow me to pay respect to Director Brent Reinke. He not only had these same challenges as our director but he led us through them while dealing with significant budget cuts and economic issues. As far as the challenges you mentioned, I believe I am the sixth IDOC director to have the Balla lawsuit to deal with. That should give you some insight to the complexity of it. After the recent ruling from Judge Carter that required us to re-start the clock on the Balla agreement and put the onus on us to prove we’re compliant with the agreement, we gathered a team together and are having them audit the entire Balla definitive agreement, line by line, to ensure every T is crossed and every I is dotted. This review is being completed to ensure we are doing everything exactly to the degree we are expected to do it. We have also recently established a new way of micro-managing our processes with Balla. We are using the same model we used to micro-manage the transition of the private prison to it becoming state operated. It’s called the incident command system. As far as the overall challenges IDOC is facing and how we will deal with them, we’ll tackle each one with transparency and a lot of hard work.
You have been known to show up at the prison at 2 a.m. and go on a walkabout or drive around the complex. You recently went on a ride-along with the Caldwell Street Crimes Unit. Why aren’t you at your desk all the time?
I can’t think of a time that I felt any level of success while sitting at my desk. Even as I type this I am in the field. I’m sure when my tenure ends people will be able to say a lot of things about me, but they won’t be able to say that I didn’t show up. Also, we have great leaders in place that get the job done. My job is to work closely with the Board of Correction in setting the course of the agency, provide the resources to get the job done, and stay out of the way. I will be measuring results on a monthly basis to ensure we are on track.
Every day IDOC correction officers deal with some of Idaho’s most violent offenders. They also must contend with prison gangs and be constantly vigilant for threats. What is your strategy for addressing correction officer stress and burnout?
Thank you so much for asking this question! A recent study of a neighboring corrections agency showed an alarming rate of staff suffering from PTSD. We know this is true and it can’t and won’t be ignored. We started with embedding staff wellness into our strategic plan and it’s one of our three goals for the agency. Our human resources team created a senior level HR specialist who will have this as their sole responsibility. They have already developed a three-phased plan to address staff wellness that includes suicide prevention/detection, free resources to our staff and ongoing training and attention on this issue. Our Board of Corrections is on board 100 percent. We have a lot of work to do still but the future looks bright.
What misconceptions do you think the public has about IDOC?
I would guess that some believe what they see in movies and how television shows describe our industry. But, that’s not their fault for having those perceptions. We have to get our message out and show the public the truth. And the truth is our staff have some of the most challenging, toughest, and rewarding jobs out there. In most cases they lead with their heart. For instance, how in the world do we employ teachers to work in a prison setting? Not only are they also locked in a prison all day under very challenging circumstances but they are also doing it during the months of June, July and August. They could be teaching on the “outside” and have these months off. Why do they do it? Well, I think like most teachers they are led by their heart and have a deep desire to serve. They are purpose driven. These are the types of staff that are everywhere in this agency.
If you had the opportunity to reinvent a prison, without political or financial constraints, what would it look like?
I would start with ensuring we had enough cells to hold the criminals that our society should be truly scared of. The fact is there are certain inmates that shouldn’t get out of prison because of their demonstrated ability to prey on others. After that, I would make sure all other housing had an environment that promotes safety for our staff, our public and our inmates. The environment should also provide offenders an opportunity for change. We are fortunate to have the system we have in Idaho today. I truly believe we are far more advanced than some other systems.
Ten, 20 years down the road, what do you want your legacy to be as IDOC director?
I’m positive people will forget what we did and forget what we said, but if people will remember how they were made to feel important and valued than I would count that as a huge success.
What question do you wish we had asked you?
What other challenges is IDOC facing that the public may not be aware of? Most people think our needs or challenges are centered entirely around security. They mostly are, but it takes a huge team of people to keep this outfit running. Many people don’t fully appreciate the role our support services play in making our agency successful. From fiscal and budget staff helping managers make good decisions to a human resources shop in a constant state of recruiting and hiring, and from our contract monitors to the hardworking IT staff keeping an outdated system limping along, there are so many people whose contributions to this agency are nothing short of amazing. It’s easy for their contributions to get overlooked because they don’t wear a badge, but they make a difference for Idaho day in and day out.
OK, enough serious stuff. Give us a fun fact. And tell us your favorite movie.
I know every single lyric to every single song by The Smiths. I am a huge Morrissey fan. (Lead singer of The Smiths and now solo artist.)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton.
My neighbor just got a ping pong table. We have been having late night battles for the past few weeks.
Favorite place in Idaho?
I absolutely love Idaho. We have lived in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rexburg, Orofino, Nampa, and Boise. My friends have heard me say “We are so blessed to live in Idaho” a thousand times. All of that said, I have lived all across the country and can’t think of a better city than Boise. Like all of Idaho, It’s just an easy place to love.
When you go on vacation, do you head to the big cities or the great outdoors?
I am a city guy. Camping amongst bears stresses me out. I would rather walk the downtown of a cool city checking out the food and what’s happening.
You played college football. Tell us more about this, please.
After high school I attended Ricks Junior College in Rexburg and played football there. I absolutely loved my time in Rexburg and it will always have a special place with me. After Ricks I attended the University of Arkansas and played football for the Hogs. For my senior season I transferred to Idaho State University. One of my closest friends was Gary Andersen. Gary was coaching there and it allowed me to come play for him and get back to the state I loved. Gary is now the head coach at Oregon State.