Why Idaho Still Depends On Private Prisons Despite Fraught History
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It was the early 2000s, and the largest prison in Idaho was run by the private company Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. The state had also started sending prisoners to a private facility in Texas run by GEO Group.
As of 2008, things started to take a turn. Idaho began pulling prisoners out of the Texas facility because of understaffing and safety concerns. Just two years later, a massive scandal hit the CCA facility, too.
Press reports uncovered dangerous levels of understaffing, cover-ups and violence. Prisoners had even nicknamed it “gladiator school.”
A video surfaced that showed inmates beating each other severely as guards looked on.
"As a matter of fact, at one point there, they had more violence at that one prison than all the other prisons combined in the state,” said Rebecca Boone, the Associated Press reporter who broke the story.
Prisoners sued, the FBI investigated and the company finally admitted it had both understaffed the facility and violated state contracts.
Eventually, Idaho took over managing the prison. But it wasn’t finished with private facilities. For one thing, the state continued to use a smaller private prison south of Boise.
But there still wasn’t enough room for Idaho’s fast-growing prison population.
“The population started trending upwards and just sort of didn't stop,” said Lance McCleve, an evaluator with Idaho’s legislative watchdog Office of Performance Evaluations, or OPE.
OPE recently released a report showing that overcrowding and safety concerns identified a decade ago have just increased.
McCleve said the number of inmates grew three times faster than the state’s population since 2016, and one possible reason behind this growth was Idaho’s parole policies.
“People who are going out of parole aren't getting off of parole, they're ending up back in prison or on parole violations,” he said.
In fact, Idaho has the highest percentage of prisoners behind bars on parole and probation violations.
But that’s not the only factor driving Idaho’s soaring prison populations.
Alejandra Rios, director of the nonprofit Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, said Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentences for things like nonviolent drug charges are a big problem. Her organization found that drug possession accounted for a third of prison admissions.
“We also identified a huge lack of treatment for substance abuse disorder and for mental health issues,” Rios said.
So people relapse and go back in.
Idaho found itself between a rock and a hard place — a growing number of inmates and nowhere to put them. So it reached out to GEO Group in Texas once again. That’s how inmate Jared Deveraux ended up in a prison more than 1,500 miles from home.
Deveraux is in for several counts of grand theft after a roofing contractor scheme. He’s one of more than 600 other Idaho inmates at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility west of San Antonio near the Mexico border.
He started out serving his sentence in Idaho, but was one of the first sent down to Texas a few years ago. When he got there, he said the facilities he stayed in didn’t seem ready for all these new residents.
“It was kind of like going from a prison facility to a dog kennel,” he said.
Eagle Pass didn’t even have an outside yard ready. Residents were shut inside for months.
And in Idaho, Deveraux was able to earn some money as a wildland firefighter to start paying off restitution. But at Eagle Pass, only up to 20% of prisoners qualified to work can get a job.
Deveraux also has six kids ranging in age from 8 to 18 from two past marriages. He said he wants to see them, and that that kind of distance is hard on kids, too.
“You know, I understand that I screwed up and I had to come to prison,” he said over the phone from the Texas facility. “But even just at least being, being to where they can come visit me face to face has an impact.”
Still, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. His girlfriend Annie Chaney moved down to Eagle Pass to be with him. But it’s been tough on her, too.
“I didn't know anyone there and I knew nothing about Eagle Pass,” she said. “So it was completely unknown. And I really still don't have friends there.”
Back in Idaho, the director of the Department of Corrections, Josh Tewalt, said he doesn’t like sending Idaho inmates out of the state.
“You have to acknowledge [private prisons] exist for a reason,” Tewalt said, “and part of the reason they exist is because it's tough for people to want to invest in infrastructure.”
It’s his job to ask lawmakers to fund that infrastructure, but it’s a tough sell.
There are different agendas at play. Some legislators want to focus on reducing incarceration instead. And some counties depend on state reimbursements they get for housing overflow prisoners in their jails, even though that’s ultimately more expensive than just using prisons.
It doesn't help that IDOC hasn't had long-term plans in place. As the Office of Performance Evaluations found, that meant the state couldn’t project what kind of infrastructure it would need as state and prison populations grew.
Just growing at the rate of the state population, OPE found that IDOC would still exceed prison capacity in five years with a prison population of nearly 11,000 people.
But for now, Tewalt is asking the state for more funding to help recent parolees stay out of prison.
And he’s also asking to send even more prisoners to a private facility in Colorado when Idaho’s contract with Eagle Pass in Texas ends in late September. If Idaho meets the minimum 1,200 prisoners at the Colorado prison, Idaho will even get a deal. Tewalt thinks they’ll meet that minimum population.
He knows this isn’t a solution, though.
“Out-of-state placement isn't a plan in and of itself,” Tewalt said. “It simply buys us time. And we should be judged on how we make use of that time.”
There is one private facility in Idaho that hasn’t had troubles.
It’s called CAPP, which is short for Correctional Alternative Placement Program, and it’s run by Management Training Corporation. It has around 430 prisoners. The warden is Henry Atencio, and he used to work for the state. He’s proud of his facility.
Looking at past private prison scandals, understaffing and dangerous conditions, Atencio isn’t sure any one person or company or state government is at fault.
“I don't know if any one entity is to blame for that at the end of the day,” he said. “It's a shared problem.”
Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8
Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.