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Eye On Boise

What happened last time

Now that a federal judge has ordered Idaho to remove 200 inmates from its prisons by Oct. 28 due to extreme, impermissible and unconstitutional overcrowding, it’s worth remembering what happened the last time Idaho sent hundreds of inmates out of state due to overcrowding here. Idaho is preparing to ship up to 200 inmates out of state by the court’s deadline, at a cost likely to add up to millions.

In 1997, Idaho had 200 of its inmates in a private prison in Minnesota, 248 in a county jail in Texas, and 300 in a private prison in Basile, La. The Idaho prisoners in Louisiana arrived in June, and within weeks, 100 of them rioted over conditions at the Basile Detention Center, causing $35,000 in damage. Then in July, five escaped, including two convicted murderers, a rapist, a burglar, and a child molester. One, murderer Roger Dale Babb of Potlatch, later turned himself in to authorities in Beaumont, Tex., saying he was tired of running. Babb told authorities that he’d bought wire cutters from a guard at Basile, and made his break to force his return to Idaho because of a lack of medical and legal services at the private lockup.

Three others were recaptured in short order, but Kallahan Lee Ziegler, then 24, a child molester from Kootenai County, was on the loose until he was recaptured five years later in Kentucky. He’s now in the Idaho Maximum Security Institution.

In December of that year, two more Idaho prisoners escaped from Basile, but were recaptured 50 miles away. There was a brief flurry of concern when Louisiana prosecutors said they might not be able to charge the Idahoans with escape because they were locked up in a private prison, and Louisiana laws made that a “gray area.” Eventually, authorities decided the laws did allow charges.

If Idaho has to keep 200 inmates housed out of state for a year, the cost would be roughly $4.5 million. There are other costs, too – if those inmates miss out on programming they need to qualify for parole, they’ll stay in prison longer and cost Idaho even more in the long run. State Corrections Director Tom Beauclair told lawmakers in June that Idaho needs to build three new prisons at a cost of nearly $160 million – but if it spends the money instead on shipping inmates out of state, “Essentially what we’re doing is we’re paying for capital construction costs to another state.”

“At this point we really don’t have much of a choice,” said Mike Journee, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s press secretary, after the judge’s ruling Tuesday. “The choice has kind of been taken out of our hands at this point.”

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Eye On Boise

News, happenings and more from the Idaho Legislature and the state capital.