Idaho laws leave it wide open for private prisons to start up and house inmates from other states - with no particular regulation.
A city south of Boise has approved plans for a large private prison as an economic development project. Others may follow.
Four top state legislators who toured private prisons in Texas and Florida this summer say Idaho needs laws to regulate such operations.
“Critical situations can arise when there is an escape or a riot,” the four wrote in a report to state legislative leaders. “Law enforcement may or may not be informed of the escape, and citizens have no notice that dangerous criminals are in their community.
“Another question may surface as to whether or not law enforcement has the authority to capture and detain these inmates.”
Plagued with overflowing prisons after a decade of get-tough crime legislation, Idaho has been looking to private companies as a way to obtain more prison cells.
The state could announce a preliminary bid award as soon as today for its first private prison project. Idaho plans to hire a private firm to build and operate a large prison on state land in Boise.
Legislation passed last year paved the way for the state to contract with private companies, but it didn’t address the issue of private prisons in Idaho that take prisoners from elsewhere.
“There’s nothing that says you can’t,” said Cathy Holland-Smith, a senior budget analyst for the Legislature who accompanied the lawmakers on the tour.
Rep. Bob Geddes, R-Preston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he expects legislation on the issue this year.
When it comes to private prisons, he said, “There’s still a lot of t’s to cross and i’s to dot.”
Geddes, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Atwell Parry, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Celia Gould and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Denton Darrington toured seven private prisons in Texas and Florida, and met with lawmakers, state officials and prison managers.
They learned that in Texas, when out-of-state inmates escaped from a private prison, the state couldn’t prosecute them. Texas also found itself paying to round up escapees and clean up after disturbances at unregulated private prisons.
Texas responded by changing its laws to require all private correctional facilities to contract with a local government, be approved by the county sheriff and be regulated by the state Jail Standards Commission.
Now, Texas is notified of the crime committed, custody level and home state of all inmates brought to private prisons.
In Mountain Home, Idaho, a city-county economic development committee approached Cornell Corrections Inc. a year ago about building a prison in the town.
“They came and looked at Mountain Home and felt that this would be a good place to build the prison,” said Sue Gross, coordinator of the Elmore County Impact Steering Committee.
She estimates the project will bring 110 to 125 jobs to the community, depending on the number of beds. Cornell is still talking with states about inmate contracts, and hasn’t settled on a size for the prison yet.
“It’s a stable business, and we have the labor force here available,” Gross said.
Mountain Home, which is about 30 miles south of Boise and has a large Air Force base, has young military retirees who could work at the private prison, she said. “In fact, we have a lot of those types of people that are commuting to Boise now and work at the state prison.”
Cornell has won a conditional-use permit from the city, but plans to start building are on hold until it determines how many inmates it can get, and from where.
Gross said Cornell helped put together legislation regulating private prisons in Arizona, and said legislation is a good idea.
“It protects the prison as well as it protects the state,” she said.
The four legislative committee chairmen said they were impressed with the private prisons they toured, but want Idaho to learn from other states’ mistakes.
The four legislators also said Texas and Florida can’t certify that private prisons cost less to run than comparable public prisons; that private firms seem to save money by often using dormitory-style housing for medium-security inmates rather than individual cells; and that some private prisons are offering good substance-abuse programs.
They also noted in their report that if privatized prisons get a significant portion of the state’s lower-custody inmates, the state’s costs to house its remaining inmates will rise. That’s because it’s more expensive to incarcerate higher-security inmates. , DataTimes