Life is grim on Idaho’s Death Row.
Inmates are allowed out for an hour’s exercise each day. That means herding them into individual kennel-like cages, 7-by-21 feet, surrounded on top and sides by chain link. For exercise, the concrete block wall at the end of each cage offers either a chin-up bar or a pay telephone.
Not all Idaho state prison inmates live this way. Other inmates at the Maximum Security Institution use a concrete exercise yard, with one basketball hoop and an open-air toilet. At the medium-security prison next door, there’s a gym.
“We don’t pamper prisoners,” said Joe Klauser, warden of the Idaho State Correctional Institution.
Gov. Phil Batt wants to make sure. In a news conference last week, he said efforts to deal with Idaho’s skyrocketing prison population and the accompanying costs should include a review of prison amenities. “We don’t need to have fancy quarters for our prison population, any more than they’re required by law.”
The medium-security prison that sits next to “the Max” could hardly be called fancy. A hodgepodge of buildings from various eras, it houses about 800 inmates. Most share bunk beds in small, square cells. Most cells have a toilet and some type of window.
Medium-security prisoners do, however, have access to things not found at the Max: A full gym with weight-lifting equipment, basketball and five pool tables; high school courses including a small science lab and classrooms with computers; and a chapel.
But taxpayers don’t pay for those things. The prison collects a 20 percent surcharge on inmates’ telephone calls, purchases at the prison commissary, mail-order purchases and the like. The money goes into an “inmate management fund” that pays for all prison amenities, including substance abuse classes and day room television sets. This year, the half-million-dollar fund will cover 12 prison staffers’ salaries.
The fund also pays the salaries for convicts lucky enough to hold paying prison jobs, which bring about $5 a month.
Prison officials view amenities as one tool to manage their burgeoning inmate population. “We wouldn’t do these types of things if they weren’t really important management tools,” Klauser said.
In addition to giving inmates constructive ways to fill their time, the activities give them incentive to behave. A convict who misbehaves might lose access to the gym for 60 days. Or he might lose his job, lose other privileges or be placed in restrictive housing - an old, poorly ventilated cellblock known as “the hole.”
“They’re very controlled. They know what’s expected of them,” Klauser said. “They adhere to the rules. If they don’t, they know what the consequence is going to be, and it’s going to be swift.”
Something to lose
Most of the time, the yard at the medium-security prison is deserted. There might be an inmate or two, in a bright orange vest, picking up garbage or sweeping. Inmates move from place to place only at set times, with guards.
A double set of fences surrounds the prison. Up to 50 large dogs - German shepherds, chows and rottweilers - prowl between the fences. Guards with guns watch from towers.
At this medium security prison, inmates must rise and make their beds by 8 a.m., even if they plan to just lie on them all day. They can’t put up centerfolds on their walls. The property they can have is strictly limited, and no one can have anything that belongs to someone else, not even a magazine.
Convicts who own their own TVs or whose families buy them may have them in their cells, and limited cable service is available, even at the nearby Max. Cable provides a few educational, sports and religious channels, plus some old movies. Klauser said it’s limited to “wholesome stuff.”
But TVs, like any other privilege, can be taken away.
Some inmates, known as “slugs,” don’t do anything all day. Many others work in-prison jobs, attend classes or counseling, or visit the chapel. They know they’re more likely to win parole if they show they’ve used their prison time constructively.
At 11 a.m., it’s time for all inmates to return to their cells to be counted, one of five daily counts. Doors open, and a crowd of men in blue denim pours slowly down a walkway. Many have long hair (courts have upheld that right for most inmates). Many sport tattoos. Some wear stocking caps against the fall chill. A few hold cigarettes.
The crowd moves easily along. All is orderly.
Later, when the warden and a female reporter walk into the various cellblocks, the inmates are quiet, polite. Talking with inmates, Klauser refers to each of their cells as “your house.”
Conditions have changed in Idaho’s prisons since 1980, when convicts rioted and took over the state prison. “We’ve really grown up,” Klauser said.
Prison guards today are better trained and more likely to have college degrees. They don’t abuse inmates, Klauser said, and the inmates don’t attack them. “We have not had a real assault on staff in four years.”
Looking out over the busy gym, full of inmates who were off work and classes for the Veterans Day holiday, Klauser said there were about four cases of “mutual battery,” where two inmates got in a fight, during October.
“But here, they are very, very respectful,” he said. “They know if there’s trouble here it’ll be restricted. They have something to lose.”
Waving an arm across the yard toward the chapel, where other inmates were spending their holiday listening to religious tapes on headsets or joining in discussion groups, Klauser said, “All of these things, whether it’s lifting weights or studying your religion, provide positive outlets for pent-up frustration.”
Lisa Cates, state prison operations chief, said the latest philosophy in managing prisons stresses order, amenity and service. Amenities are anything that’s not required by law, from church services to cable TV. They occupy inmates’ time, keeping them out of trouble and making them easier to manage.
Klauser said service to him means things like changing a lightbulb that’s burned out. And the goal is to use the service and amenities to maintain order.
The inmate management fund, started at least 15 years ago, “has been an invaluable resource to manage our facilities without burdening the taxpayer,” Cates said.
“I’ve toured prisons throughout the U.S.,” she said. “I think we have a good, fair, basic system. I don’t think we have any extremes. We don’t have any country clubs.”
The Maximum Security Institution, which opened in 1988, is fancy in some ways. The central control room contains computers and other hightech equipment, and guards there have a clear view out to every cell door, all of which they control remotely.
But it’s also barren. Floors shine in long, empty hallways.
“Cleanliness to me is a sign of good order and respect,” Klauser said. Inmates do the cleaning themselves.
The Max has about 450 inmates. The B Block houses the worst offenders, including those awaiting execution. Most other convicts in the Max share cells designed for one. That’s how Idaho has shoe-horned its rapidly increasing prison population in - by adding bunk beds.
A new housing unit designed for 94 inmates is scheduled to open at the Max in two months. It’ll be double-bunked when it opens and hold nearly 200 inmates.
Klauser is now warden of both prisons, after the warden’s job at the Max was eliminated in a cost-cutting move. He said the Max will lose its national accreditation by double-bunking in the new and existing units. “We have no choice,” he said.
Jim Spalding, state corrections director, estimated that Idaho’s prison population will double in the next six years. It now stands at 3,342 inmates, more than half of them non-violent offenders.
Spalding has warned that if Idaho doesn’t alter its sentencing practices, it will need to spend $250 million on prison construction in the next six years.
Batt has named a committee to explore alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, saying he wants to avoid raising taxes to pay for more prisons.
Spalding said he’s seeing a net increase of about 30 inmates every month. “Certainly you can trim,” he said. “For example, we added 400 new beds this summer without adding one additional staff.”
That was accomplished by adding bunk beds to hundreds of single-person cells. “We’re willing to cut back wherever we can,” Spalding said.
One Correction Department response to the governor’s 2 percent budget holdback this year was to shift more costs, including prison staffing costs, onto the inmate management fund. That means less money for computers, books and basketballs.
Idaho’s per-bed cost is the 14th cheapest in the nation, Klauser said. “We do that by not providing the programming or amenities that a lot of other states do. We use a lot of volunteers to provide those.”
But the bigger question, Spalding said, is what to do about the steadily increasing stream of men in blue denim taking up residence in Idaho prisons.
Klauser said he just runs the facility. He wants to use the tools available, including amenities, to keep his prison operating smoothly and under control.
“If you treat a person like a dog, they’re going to respond accordingly,” he said. “They do have us outnumbered here.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color) 2 graphics: 1. The Idaho inmate management fund 2. Idaho prisons
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HARD NUMBERS How many people are in Idaho prisons and what for? Total inmates: 3,342. About 7 percent are female. 42 percent are serving time for violent crimes, such as murder, assault and rape; 58 percent are in for crimes such as drug offenses, burglary and embezzlement. Average sentence: 6.8 years. Cost per inmate, per day: $48.