BOISE – Nearly 100 Idaho prisoners are scheduled to go to a private Texas prison where one inmate killed herself after alleged sexual humiliation by a guard and where a captain kept a photo of himself in a Ku Klux Klan hood.
Top state officials, including Gov. Butch Otter, declared a prison-crowding emergency Tuesday and approved the move to Val Verde Correctional Facility and Jail in Del Rio, Texas, at a cost of $51 per inmate per day.
“We are at a critical point,” Corrections Director Brent Reinke told the state Board of Examiners, which Otter chairs. “We’re kind of in a corner.”
Idaho has 430 inmates housed out of state, plus 580 in county jails – and state prisons remain over capacity by 86 inmates. At the same time, private prison space is getting harder to find and more expensive.
An advocacy group called Val Verde “a scandal-ridden prison.” The county where the prison is located was forced to hire a full-time prison monitor after a lawsuit.
Idaho’s decision to send inmates to Val Verde comes after problems at two prisons run by the GEO Group, a Florida-based private operator that also runs Val Verde. Concerns over inmate abuse in Texas have forced Idaho to demand they be moved twice in less than a year.
Reinke acknowledged the state made a mistake when it failed to monitor inmates housed at Dickens County Correctional Center, another private lockup in Texas operated by the GEO Group. After an Idaho inmate, Scot Noble Payne, committed suicide there in March, Idaho officials visited the facility for the first time in months and found “inappropriate” conditions – including poor sanitation, intimidation by guards and a lack of required programs. Now, Reinke said, Idaho wants its 125 inmates out of Dickens.
About 69 will be moved to Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas, another GEO facility that the state has found to be well-run, and the rest will go to Val Verde.
After Tuesday’s decision, Reinke said he will look into concerns about Val Verde.
“We’ll do a site visit in the immediate future,” Reinke said.
Otter said he thought the Val Verde facility sounded like a “good deal” at $51 per inmate per day.
“I would agree that we need to go forward with this, but I also think the board needs a level of comfort that whatever mistakes we’ve made in the past will be addressed,” Otter said.
He asked Reinke to give the board quarterly reports on monitoring of Idaho inmates housed out of state.
In 2005, a black guard alleged his captain at Val Verde kept a hangman’s noose in his office and a Polaroid photo of himself in a Ku Klux Klan hood in his desk. That case was settled in 2006. The settlement with GEO isn’t public, but details of the guard’s complaint were confirmed by a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation.
The guard’s attorney said Tuesday the atmosphere at Val Verde was “hostile and racist.”
“I would have serious concerns about the way inmates will be treated,” said Mark Anthony Sanchez. “If a jail treats its employees that way, how is it going to treat inmates?”
In 2006, a woman inmate’s family sued GEO Group after she committed suicide at Val Verde. LeTisha Tapia said she had been raped by an inmate and sexually humiliated by a GEO guard after reporting to the warden that guards let inmates have sex. The lawsuit was settled this year.
Details of the settlement also aren’t public, according to U.S. District Court records in western Texas.
But Val Verde County, where the prison is located, has hired a full-time prison monitor as part of its own settlement with Tapia’s family.
“The county feels that the jail monitor is necessary,” said Ann Markowski Smith, the county attorney. Smith added that concerns with the GEO-run prison remain, including whether inmates are properly receiving medication to treat mental health conditions.
Bob Libal of Grass Roots Leadership, a group that campaigns against for-profit prisons like GEO, is more critical.
“Val Verde is the GEO Group prison we always point to as a scandal-ridden private prison,” he said. “We hear very bad things from there, whether it be in the lawsuits or grumblings about the facility being poorly operated.”
GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez didn’t return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Idaho’s contract with GEO is worth about $8 million annually.
Idaho estimates the number of prisoners will grow 6 percent annually through 2010, when the population will reach about 8,800.
While Reinke said he’ll soon introduce a plan to build a 2,200-bed private prison in Idaho, that won’t be done until 2010 at the earliest. The state plans to send 240 prisoners in July and November to prisons in Oklahoma operated by Corrections Corp. of America.
Reinke said the Dickens County fiasco has prompted him to start work on a system modeled after how Washington state monitors its out-of-state inmates – a “virtual prison” in which Idaho would assign a warden and numerous other staffers specifically to monitor inmates and their incarceration conditions when they’re out of state or in county jails.
“Actually, components of that will be implemented by the end of this week,” Reinke told the board.
Reinke said he’s working with an array of groups on proposals for alternatives to incarceration, along with the plan for a new private prison in Idaho. But all that takes time.
With the Board of Examiners emergency declaration Tuesday, Idaho prisoners could be at Val Verde “as early as September,” Reinke said.
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