State Politics

To save on prison costs, Idaho seeks to change how inmates think

Inmates in the Retained Jurisdiction Program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution enjoy sunshine on May 12.
Inmates in the Retained Jurisdiction Program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution enjoy sunshine on May 12. Times-News

Twenty-eight-year-old Chaz Golding has spent a quarter of his life behind bars.

His felony rap sheet includes seven years in prison in Nebraska for burglary and forgery, and possession of a firearm as a felon in Idaho — among other crimes.

Can Golding redeem his life? And at what cost to Idaho?

With a revamped Retained Jurisdiction Program, state officials hope to break the cycle for inmates who keep committing crimes.

After Golding, of Twin Falls, was arrested for stealing his girlfriend’s mother’s bank card, he took a plea deal. A judge sentenced him in January to the Idaho Department of Correction’s Retained Jurisdiction Program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood.

Under the program, a judge retains jurisdiction after sentencing, allowing the judge to change or suspend the sentence if the inmate completes a placement — called a rider — successfully. State law lets a judge retain jurisdiction for 365 days.

If Golding fails to receive a probation recommendation from the Cottonwood staff this summer, he will spend the next two to seven years in prison — instead of raising his three preschool children.

IDOC rolled out its revamped rider program at four Idaho prisons this spring. The program now requires more in-class practice for new learned skills. It requires role playing for situations that could put inmates at risk to commit new crimes. It’s a military-like regimen. Inmates say changing their criminal and addictive thinking is difficult work.

The overhaul followed an assessment last year that criticized the program. IDOC trained employees in the new program last fall.

The Idaho Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act in March 2014, when the state was at a crossroads: determining whether to build a new prison for an increasing offender population or to spend the money on programs aimed at fixing the root of the problem — criminal behavior and substance abuse addiction.

Faced with one of the fastest growing prison populations in the nation, the Legislature expected to avert between $134 million and $157 million in prison spending between 2015 and 2019 and reduce recidivism by 15 percent.

IDOC has had a rider since 1972, but it gets more emphasis now that the Legislature is asking judges, IDOC and probation officers to use it more to reduce the costs of long-term incarceration.

In fiscal 2015, IDOC’s estimated statewide cost of the program was $24.2 million. Golding’s 180-day program at Cottonwood costs taxpayers $10,417. A two-year prison sentence at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution south of Boise would run $64,356.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

The idyllic forest setting of the North Idaho Correctional Institution in the Panhandle belies reality: NICI is where most of Idaho’s male criminal offenders are sent when judges place them in the Retained Jurisdiction Program.

Their crimes range from driving under the influence to first-degree murder.

On a hill above Cottonwood, the 11-building compound is surrounded by pine forest. On May 12, three deer munched grass a few hundred yards away from the parking lot, which looks more like a forest campground than a prison.

But the cyclone of wire atop the fences ensures that the 400 men inside never forget they are imprisoned.

As inmates move from one program to another, to lunch or to their dorms, guards stand at attention in the roadways between buildings. The inmates walk when told and stand still when told.

Golding, also known as Greg Melton, said the rider program is much tougher than serving a prison sentence.

“People say this isn’t prison. This is still prison to me,” said Golding, nervously perched on a chair pulled up to a long table in the warden’s office. His manner was polite and his appearance neat — buzz cut, jeans and maroon T-shirt with a name badge clipped to the neckline. A tattoo on his right forearm was the only vestige of his personality from the streets. “This isn’t a vacation.”

The program’s inmates are expected to conduct themselves as if they are working on turning their lives around and deserve a shot at probation.

“It’s not easy. They have to take a look at their behaviors and see how they created victims and hurt their own families,” said Terema Carlin, acting warden at NICI, as she walked through the compound, past inmates gathered behind wire fences.

Misbehavior or failure to demonstrate progress means a quick trip back to county jail on “peanut butter and relinquishment day,” Golding said. The staff gets together at lunch weekly to discuss who is failing. That day, the inmate menu is peanut butter sandwiches.

“We are always being watched,” Golding said. “Everybody is walking on eggshells that day. Some people think they are slick and sly, but they are not. It bites them in the butt. They start calling people to the office, where they are handcuffed and put in orange jumpsuits.”

Inmates relinquished to serve their full prison sentences — “put on blast,” as Golding calls it — immediately board a bus headed for one of the term-sentence prisons. There they wait for transportation back to county jails — and dates with their sentencing judges.

LIFE INSIDE NICI

Housed in a former U.S. Air Force installation, the prisoners sleep in dormitory-style barracks, use communal bathrooms and showers, and eat at a mess hall.

They get up at 5 a.m., prepare for the day by 5:30, stand to be counted four times a day and spend hours in intense programs resembling group therapy. At 8:50 p.m., the lights go out.

They are fed 2,900 calories a day. Breakfast might be sausage and eggs or coffee cake. Lunch might be a sandwich, chips and dessert; two times a week, lunch is hot soup made from leftovers. Inmates’ favorite dinner: hamburgers and french fries, salad and dessert.

Some inmates work on getting their General Educational Development certificates or work at jobs in the compound’s laundry, kitchen or grounds maintenance. All are expected to use any free time constructively.

JUDGE TO OFFENDERS: PUT ASIDE ANGER

Michael Crabtree, a 5th District judge in Cassia County, said offenders are often angry when he retains jurisdiction.

“I tell them when I sentence them that they are going to be mad. I tell them to view it as a positive and put aside their anger and start working their program,” Crabtree said. “Some have a harder time putting aside their anger. If they do it and learn to control their thinking and re-engage in the correct process, it is a good sign that I can then put them on probation afterwards.”

Crabtree flipped through case files from a silver rolling cart in his office. About 90 percent of them were drug- or alcohol-related charges or stemmed from substance abuse.

Addiction is rampant and knows no boundaries, he said, and elements of substance abuse are in “virtually every crime.”

Shifting criminal thinking from blame and immediate gratification to personal responsibility and caring about actions’ effects on others is no small feat.

“You have to turn around a lifetime of bad thinking,” Crabtree said.

One risk factor for recidivism is lack of education, said Terema Carlin, the acting NICI warden. So Cottonwood inmates have access to a library and computers, and they learn resume writing and job-seeking skills. Twenty inmates a month get their GEDs at the prison.

“We have an opportunity with this population to really make a change in society,” Carlin said.

Carlin said IDOC is also working toward implementing more aftercare for inmates in their communities that eventually will include volunteer mentoring.

“It will be invaluable,” she said.

‘I’M LEARNING TO CHANGE THOUGHT PATTERNS’

This time, Golding said, he is going to make his incarcerated time count. He wants to learn to correct his faulty thinking and make better choices.

“I came from a family that was broken, so before family didn’t mean much to me,” he said.

His mother and father both used drugs when he was growing up, and both landed in prison. When he was 11, he was put in foster care. A year later, he was adopted.

His brother died in March 2014 of an Oxycontin overdose at a motel. His sister was able to escape her destructive background and is now married and lives out of state.

Golding was adopted into a good family, he said, but he ran away, drank and smoked marijuana. Later he became addicted to methamphetamine. He believed he could get away with whatever he wanted to do.

“I’m learning how to change those thought patterns,” he said.

He’s learning skills: understanding how a situation makes him feel, identifying others’ feelings and de-escalating confrontation.

As part of the training, Golding had to go back and identify all of his risky behaviors, every rule broken — including moral rules — and all the stealing, cheating and drug use, why he did it, the consequences and how his family was affected. He wrote a report on each instance.

“I’ve done 80 reports,” he said.

Golding said his girlfriend and three children, ages 5, 3 and 17 months, provide the motivation to change.

“I don’t want to be away from my family anymore,” he said.

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