Idaho shouldn’t be paying for expensive out-of-state prison beds when it has empty beds at home, legislative budget writers declared Monday.
Four days after the state opened a 536-bed prison addition south of Boise, the Legislature’s budget committee slashed $1.5 million from the Correction Department’s budget request for housing inmates out of state or in county jails.
The move also cut $240,000 that was targeted for opening North Idaho’s first community work center beds in June, delaying that program for at least a month.
“Everything we have said here says that we get those inmates into those beds that we have spent tax money to build, as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.
Correction Director Jim Spalding said the state Board of Correction was planning to meet in February to consider bringing another batch of inmates back from out of state. Now, he said, it may need to hold a special meeting sooner.
Idaho’s prisons have 471 empty beds, Spalding said, counting the new addition and beds created by doublebunking at other prisons. About 160 inmates who recently were brought back from a private prison in Louisiana already are living in the new addition.
But Idaho still has 449 prisoners housed in Minnesota and Texas and 248 others backed up in county jails.
“I’ve just got to figure it out,” Spalding said.
Spalding said he had hoped to bring the North Idaho work-release beds in during the current fiscal year. Gov. Phil Batt recommended $240,000 to pay for the new program this year, plus permanent funding for it in next year’s budget.
Idaho has community work centers throughout southern Idaho but none in the northern half of the state. The centers are used mainly for prisoners who are nearing release. The inmates hold down jobs in the community, pay 25 percent of their wages to cover a portion of their keep and return to the centers at night to be locked up and receive counseling.
Because the state hasn’t been able to find a spot to build a work center in North Idaho, the Board of Correction decided earlier this year to seek private contractors to provide the North Idaho work center beds.
“It would appear to me to be a way you could offset some of those higher costs,” Spalding said. Housing inmates in work centers is considerably cheaper than holding them in secure prisons.
Plus, the board said, it needs to give inmates from North Idaho who are nearing release a chance to make the transition back into their own communities.
Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, voted against the committee’s move Monday but said he supports another option offered by Bell to cut just $1 million, including the work-center funds.
The work-center idea shouldn’t come in for emergency funding late in the year, Pischner said. “This could better be handled on a full budget process.”
The budget committee will consider the Correction Department’s full budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, within the next few weeks.
Committee members seemed frustrated at the $5.6 million bill for housing prisoners outside regular state prison cells. The request had started at nearly $9 million, but the department was able to scale that back after it canceled a contract with the Basile Detention Center in Louisiana and brought those 300 inmates home early.
That was possible because growth in Idaho’s prison population, which had been averaging 40 inmates a month, went flat over the past six months. But so far this month, the prison system has added 23 inmates.
With the expected increases not materializing in recent months, some Idaho beds opened up while inmates remained out of state.
Said Spalding, “We have a process in place to fill these beds, and it can’t happen overnight.”
Some staff members still are being brought on board at the new prison addition, he said. “It is our full intention to bring people back as soon as we can from out of state.”
Spalding also said there is some danger in canceling out-of-state contracts prematurely.
“I could fill every bed in the system today and still be about 200 beds short, and then we would have to go back out of state tomorrow, and those beds are very hard to come by.”
Sen. Stan Hawkins, R-Ucon, said, “I’m concerned that as long as we keep managing the system this way, we’re going to see runaway costs. … This black hole is just going to get blacker.”