The AP is reporting that Idaho is temporarily violating a court order on prison crowding at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, after a Jan. 2 inmate riot damaged a new temporary housing unit that had been set up in a warehouse. It was too late to cancel plans to bring back 300 inmates from out of state, so overcrowding ensued. "We're trying to come to an understanding with the court so we're not in hot water," state Corrections Director Brent Reinke said. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Money-saving inmate move may violate court ruling
By REBECCA BOONE
Associated Press Writer
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A small prison riot that damaged an inmate housing unit forced Idaho Department of Correction officials to temporarily overcrowd the Idaho State Correctional Institution in violation of a federal court order, Director Brent Reinke said.
He said the overcrowding could open the state up to sanctions.
"We're trying to come to an understanding with the court so we're not in hot water," Reinke told lawmakers during a tour of the Boise-area prisons on Wednesday. "We will look system-wide" for additional inmate beds, he said.
Reinke, the Correction Department's attorney Paul Panther and inmate attorney Walt Sinclair met with U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Jan. 6 to discuss the overcrowding at ISCI and the steps the department will take to remedy the matter, Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray told The Associated Press on Thursday.
"The director offered March 1 as a very soft target date" for coming into compliance with the ruling, Ray said. "If we cannot get these beds vacated in a timely fashion — if we cannot transfer these inmates to jails and other facilities — we would send inmates back out of state, though not necessarily the exact same group of guys."
The disturbance on Jan. 2 exacerbated a dilemma the department has faced for more than two decades — where to put inmates without blowing the prisons budget.
The issue first came to a head in 1984, when Walter "Bud" Balla, then an inmate at ISCI, brought a class-action lawsuit against the state alleging that overcrowding and other problems at the prison were inhumane and a violation of the inmates' Constitutional rights.
In 1987, U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan ruled in Balla's favor, imposing a cap on inmate populations in certain cell blocks at ISCI.
The case continued over the next two decades, with U.S. District Judge James Fitzgerald ruling in 2005 that conditions at the prison were "worse, both as to overall inmate population and plumbing problems, than when the original injunctive orders were put in place."
Fitzgerald ordered the state to remove nearly 200 beds from the Boise facility, said that no inmates may be housed in day rooms or other non-cell areas, and no inmates could be required to sleep on mattresses on the floor.
In his ruling, Fitzgerald noted that the overcrowding was not the fault of Corrections officials. Instead, he said, lawmakers were to blame for failing to provide the department with enough money to cope with the then-rapidly growing inmate population.
His order meant that Idaho had to ship more inmates than planned to out-of-state prisons, where it is more expensive to keep them compared to in-state facilities.
At the start of 2009, roughly 600 inmates were still housed in out-of-state prisons, and Correction Department officials were trying to find ways to save money after Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter ordered all state agencies to cut their budgets.
In a move initially expected to save $1.2 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, Reinke had a warehouse — formerly used as an inmate work program upholstery shop — converted into a dormitory-style housing unit.
Nearly 200 inmates were moved into the unit, making enough space available at ISCI and other state prisons to bring 300 inmates from the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Texas back to Idaho.
But some of the inmates in the warehouse were unhappy with the new digs and rioted, tearing down some walls, breaking furniture and windows and lighting a fire in the unit's guard station. Four inmates suffered minor injuries, but no officers were harmed and the uprising was quelled without force as smoke from the fire filled the building.
As a result, the warehouse was at least temporarily uninhabitable. And it was too late to stop the move of the 300 inmates from the Texas prison, Ray said. They arrived in Idaho on Jan. 4 and couldn't be sent back to the Texas prison because the Bill Clayton Detention Center was closing with the departure of the Idaho inmates, Ray said.The day the 300 inmates arrived, the prison was left with 159 more inmates than allowed under the court order, Ray said. By Jan. 15, that number had been reduced to 123, he said.
"Our very strong desire is to be in compliance with the court order as rapidly as we can," Ray said. "We never intended to be in defiance of this order. The safety of the people of the state of Idaho is our absolute top priority, and that is our focus as we moved forward."
Walt Sinclair, the attorney representing the class of inmates created in the Balla lawsuit, said his firm was still considering what actions it would take on behalf of the inmates.
At least one inmate has taken steps on his own asking the court to fine the Idaho Department of Correction.
"The time has come for the court to show its 'considerable teeth' to these defendants, by virtue of 'contempt citations' resulting in the impositions of fines," inmate Phillip Cook wrote in a letter to the judge.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.