January 29, 2008 in Idaho

Idaho prisons rife with gang violence

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho’s prison population is getting more violent as gangs extend their reach throughout the prison system.

“We are having many, many incidents with our gang members,” said Pam Sonnen, chief of prisons for the state Department of Correction. “Eighty-three percent of all violence is attributed now to gang activity.”

State lawmakers got a close-up look at the problem Monday when state Corrections Director Brent Reinke showed a video of a September incident that occurred after the leader of the Idaho Surenos, a prison gang with 582 members, was moved into segregation against his wishes.

In two tiers at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, groups of inmates trashed their day room areas, smashing television sets, covering their faces with cloths and sheltering under mattresses to await the approach of guards. When guards in riot gear entered, one of the groups of inmates ran forward and attacked.

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee watched the video with dismay. “It’s a whole different environment than what we’ve become accustomed to in Idaho’s correctional system,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell.

Reinke said the inmates involved in the September incident told guards they couldn’t be stopped because all of the segregation cells at the “Max” already were full.

That was true, Reinke said, but the prison immediately moved to set up additional segregation cells. The 12 inmates involved in the gang uprising are being criminally charged for the incident.

Idaho’s prison system is now seeking a supplemental appropriation to pay for turning 64 formerly double cells into solitary segregation cells, and lawmakers indicated they’re behind the $3 million request.

The September incident left one guard with a sprained knee and one inmate needing stitches over his eye, but most of the injuries involved bruises, Reinke told the joint budget committee. Though overcrowding over the years has prompted Idaho to double- or even triple-bunk inmates in their cells, the situation at the maximum-security prison has prompted a move in the opposite direction – a “drawdown” of the population to create more solitary cells. The problem underscores the challenge Idaho faces in building new cells to house its expanding inmate population, Reinke said. Increasingly, Idaho’s inmates are being housed in private out-of-state prisons or in contracted beds in county jails. That leaves the most violent inmates in the state system.

In addition to the 582 Surenos members, Idaho’s prison system has documented 236 members of the rival Nortenos gang and 517 of the white-supremacist Idaho Aryans gang.

Reinke and Gov. Butch Otter are proposing a 12 percent increase in prison funding next year, including converting a prison warehouse into a 304-bed treatment center for $5 million; starting work on a new, 300-bed secure mental health facility; and adding 76 beds to a 248-bed expansion already under way at the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.

The budget also calls for spending $18 million next year to house inmates out of state. In state general tax funds, Idaho’s prison budget would rise from $164.8 million this year to $184.2 million next year.

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