Louisiana may not be able to charge five Idaho inmates with escaping from a private prison there.
“There’s a gray area in the escape statute of the state of Louisiana,” said Brent Coreil, district attorney in Evangeline Parish, where the inmates escaped.
That’s why he hasn’t filed charges, Coreil said.
Four of the inmates have been captured. The fifth, child molester Kallahan Lee Ziegler from Kootenai County, remains free.
Louisiana’s escape law talks about inmates “in the custody of a law enforcement officer for the state,” Coreil said. But the Idaho inmates, held under a contract with a private company, don’t fit that description.
Coreil said it may be that the only way the Idaho escapees violated Louisiana law was by “simple damage to property where they cut the fence.”
Idaho corrections officials were taken aback by the news. “Wow,” said corrections spokesman Mark Carnopis. “We just weren’t aware of that, and we certainly want to get more details before we comment.”
The problem with charging the escapees is the latest to face Idaho’s prison system as it attempts to house a swelling load of inmates.
Nearly a quarter of the state’s 4,100 prisoners are housed out of state or in county jails for lack of state cell space. Idaho is finalizing plans for a large private prison to be completed in 1999 in Boise.
The escape problem appears to be the same experienced by Texas, which found itself unable to prosecute several sex offenders from Oregon who escaped from a private prison in Texas last year. Texas officials didn’t even know the Oregon inmates were in the state until the escape.
They reacted by getting strict legislation passed to regulate private prisons. It took effect Sept. 1.
“We had a loophole,” said Patrick Redman, general counsel to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in Texas.
“And we filled it.”
Coreil said he’s launched an investigation into the operation of Basile Detention Center, where 100 Idaho inmates rioted in July.
“I was appalled as to the lack of knowledge that anybody in the community had about the prison,” he said.
Many nearby residents didn’t know about the escape until 48 hours later, Coreil said. “I’m advised that one of the escapees in fact got a ride with two young girls after the escape, and fortunately nothing happened.”
Coreil said he also received an unconfirmed report that escapee Roger Dale Babb, a convicted murderer from Latah County, received a ride at some point from a deputy sheriff.
Coreil said he believes the Basile center is supposed to house only non-violent prisoners. “I have resolutions and correspondence to that effect,” he said. “It was never intended to house murderers, rapists and child molesters.”
Floyd Antley, operations manager for Louisiana Correctional Services Inc., the company that owns and operates the Basile center, said it was intended for minimum- and medium-custody inmates.
Idaho’s inmate classification system takes into account both the original crime and the inmate’s behavior in prison. That allows many violent criminals who have behaved well to be classified as medium custody.
That classification system is common in many states, Carnopis said. It matches the Basile Detention Center’s classification system.
“They did an extensive review of the people that we planned to send down there,” he said. “All the provisions of the contract were met.”
The five escapees included two murderers, a rapist, a child molester and a burglar.
Coreil said he has subpoenaed records from Basile including the backgrounds of all inmates.
He said Louisiana typically tacks additional years onto an inmate’s sentence for an escape conviction, but two of the escapees were serving life sentences. “To add on one to three years to a life sentence isn’t a whole lot.”
Coreil said he hasn’t made a final determination that he can’t charge the escapees.
Carnopis said, “We certainly hope that they’re able to do so, but it just seems uncertain right now.”
Coreil said he’s most concerned that people who live in the rural area near the prison are “living in fear.”
Antley said his company notified the local sheriff of the escape right away, and that community concern isn’t surprising.
“Any time you have an escape from any prison, you have that reaction,” Antley said.
He added, “Escapes are a part of prison life …. We hate that it happens, but it’s just part of the business and we have to deal with it.”
Antley said Basile has “beefed up our fencing” and taken other security precautions since the Sept. 25 escape.
The new Texas law requires private prisons to contract with a city or county, receive approval from the sheriff, and be regulated by the state. It also requires the state to be informed of the backgrounds of all inmates.
A group of Idaho lawmakers who toured private prisons in Texas and Florida over the summer recommended that Idaho pass similar laws, to protect citizens if private prisons for out-of-state inmates open up in Idaho. One already has been proposed for Mountain Home, a city about 30 miles southeast of Boise.
Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the problem with Louisiana’s escape law was “news to me.”
Sending inmates out of state isn’t something Idaho wants to do, she said, “but we have no option.”
The Basile Detention Center in Louisiana is housing about 300 Idaho inmates. They are among 748 Idaho inmates being held out of state for lack of space in Idaho’s crowded prison system.
Although slower-than-expected inmate growth in Idaho in recent months has left more than 200 beds empty, every Idaho prison still is filled beyond its original design capacity. The prisons now are 5 percent below what they call their “emergency capacity,” which counts beds added by crowding more into existing prison space.
Conditions at Basile, where inmates are housed dormitory-style in large rooms with bunk beds, have sparked continuing complaints from inmates’ families and a riot in July that caused up to $35,000 damage.
Idaho corrections officials contend the complaints are exaggerated, but four Idaho officials were at the Basile prison last week to check for compliance with the state’s contract.
Jack Van Valkenburgh of the Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who has raised concerns about Basile, said of the problem with escape charges, “It’s another problem with housing inmates in other states. Things fall through the cracks.”
Coreil said he has charges pending against 22 Idaho inmates at Basile for rioting.
“The rioting statute does fit,” he said. “Rioting can occur, it doesn’t have to be in a prison, it can be in the streets.”