October 10, 1997 in Idaho

Escapees Can Be Charged, Idaho Official Says District Attorney In Lousiana Not So Certain

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Idaho prison officials said Thursday that they believe Louisiana can prosecute five Idaho inmates who escaped from a private prison there - even though the local district attorney has doubts.

“Our people think that they can charge them, and so do the (prison) owners,” said Idaho Corrections Director Jim Spalding.

“Clearly, if somebody determines that their law does not cover our inmates, that’s going to put us into a position where we’d have to make some changes,” Spalding said. “Our only option would be to get out of Louisiana.”

Evangeline Parish District Attorney Brent Coreil on Thursday allowed the four recaptured escapees to have their first court appearance on escape charges. The fifth escapee, Kootenai County child molester Kallahan Lee Ziegler, still hasn’t been captured.

Coreil said he’ll let the four cases proceed through arraignment while he reviews the law to see if he can prosecute. He may request an opinion from the Louisiana attorney general.

“My assistants are split on this,” Coreil said Thursday. “The law wasn’t written in anticipation of this state housing prisoners from out of state.”

Coreil raised concerns this week that Louisiana’s escape law might not apply to out-of-state inmates housed in private prisons. The law refers to inmates in prisons or other programs “under the control of a law enforcement officer or the (Louisiana Corrections) department.” “This being a private institution, it is not under the Department of Public Safety and Corrections,” Coreil said. “It may be a gray area.”

Texas discovered a similar flaw in its laws when it was unable to prosecute several sex offenders from Oregon who escaped from a private Texas prison in 1996. The state then passed new legislation to regulate private prisons.

Stephanie Altig, deputy attorney general for the Idaho Corrections Department, said she reads the Louisiana law differently. She believes the definition section broadens the definition of who is “legally confined,” rather than narrowing it.

Altig also noted that the warden and deputy warden at the Basile Detention Center have been deputized by the local sheriff.

“It seems to me that the plain language of the statute gives the D.A. the authority to charge these guys,” she said. “That’s simply up to him.”

Both Spalding and Altig said a prosecutor might choose not to file escape charges for other reasons, such as when an inmate already is serving a life sentence.

But if Coreil decides Louisiana’s escape law doesn’t apply to the 300 Idaho inmates housed at the Basile Detention Center, Spalding said, “We would be extremely concerned.”

Spalding said Idaho has nowhere to put those 300 inmates if it has to withdraw them from Louisiana. Some 200-plus beds are open across Idaho’s prison system, counting those added through double-bunking and other measures. But that number includes beds at the women’s prison, in minimum-custody facilities and others that would be unsuitable for those now in Louisiana.

“I don’t have 300 beds,” he said.

Corrections officials determined Thursday that no such legal problem exists in Minnesota, where about 200 Idaho inmates are housed in a private prison, or in Texas, which has 248 Idaho inmates housed in a county jail.

Gov. Phil Batt said Thursday, “It puts even more logic into keeping our prisoners within our state, in our own system. We’re diligently working toward that end.”

Batt expressed hope that with slower-than-expected inmate growth in the past three months, the opening of a 500-bed addition at the Boise prison complex in January will allow many out-of-state inmates to be brought back.

“This is a learning process,” the governor said. “It will be an object lesson in how we need to design our own statutes to take care of private prisons here.”

A group of legislative committee chairmen who toured private prisons in Texas and Florida over the summer already has recommended that Idaho enact new laws to regulate private prisons, as Texas did.

Attorney General Al Lance said Thursday that his staff also is looking into whether Idaho needs additional laws regarding private prisons.

In addition to the 748 Idaho inmates now housed out of state, there are more than 250 backed up in county jails. Idaho is finishing plans for a 1,250-bed private prison to be built on state-owned land in Boise by 1999.

The state’s inmate population has been skyrocketing as Idaho has enacted increasingly tough sentencing laws. The number of inmates has doubled in the past seven years.

Spalding said, “I wish I could bring them all back, from all over - if I could just figure where to stuff a thousand people.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

WHAT NEXT

The four recaptured escapees were arraigned Thursday on escape charges while Evangeline Parish District Attorney Brent Coreil continued to review the law.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT NEXT The four recaptured escapees were arraigned Thursday on escape charges while Evangeline Parish District Attorney Brent Coreil continued to review the law.

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