A new report says Idaho prisons are aging and close to capacity, and recommends lawmakers start replacing some facilities that could save money within a few years. The broad report from the Legislature's Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE) also said the Idaho Department of Correction should create a new system for staffing state prisons to increase safety, though that system may require more hiring workers at prisons. The report also encouraged alternatives to imprisonment for some offenders to slow the growth of the state’s prison population.
It’s unlikely that the costlier recommendations in the OPE report will be put into action soon. In a response to the report, Gov. Butch Otter wrote that building new prisons now would be unwise and unfair to taxpayers. “I will … oppose efforts to significantly renovate or build new prison facilities in this difficult budgetary environment,” Otter wrote. He added that when economic conditions improve, he will work on prison facility needs.
The report identified the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center as the most inefficient prison in the state, based on the cost to house each inmate per day. The state could save more than $19 million over 50 years by replacing the 285-bed facility. A new prison would cut down on upkeep and personnel costs while increasing safety, according to the report. “Fewer staff can observe more inmates in a better-designed unit,” said Maureen Brewer with the OPE. The OPE report said some Idaho prisons don’t currently meet national standards for continuous observation of inmates, which lowers safety at prisons.
The report also said that furloughs for prison workers may ease the state budget in the short-term, but may also increase safety and security risks. There have been 44 layoffs and 80,000 furlough hours at the correction department since July, which is the equivalent of another 39 layoffs. “The effects of furloughs are something that truly have been difficult for us,” said Brent Reinke, director of the department. He said having fewer eyes on inmates due to furloughs could lead to problems. “There is a morale issue with staff, and that comes down to safety. Safety has to be our primary concern.” Reinke also said that Idaho's correctional system is the eighth lowest in the nation in overall prison costs per day.
The OPE was directed by the Legislature to write the report. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, who led the panel of lawmakers hearing the report, said lawmakers should look into the proposals to replace prisons and change staffing. “If we can get better security, better safety, better staff morale, and have it be a wash in terms of cost then we should be evaluating that very seriously,” Werk said. “We shouldn’t be closing our eyes to those possibilities, because right now we’re hemorrhaging money on our prison systems unnecessarily.”
“It has truly been a miracle of good judgment out there and great management that we’ve not had any incidents,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who was also on the panel hearing the OPE report. “They’ve managed to do things with the furlough system that was thrust on them because of the economy. The economy also is the reason we’re not building new prisons.” Bell said the report has some good ideas, but most can’t be acted on right now. “It will have to go on the shelf for now.”
Read the 85-page OPE report or six-page summary at the OPE website.