October 29, 2009 in Idaho, News

Housing prisoners on the cheap

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

A correctional officer leaves the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, whose entryway was festooned with flags on Thursday to mark the prison’s 20th anniversary.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

BOISE - Idaho’s maximum security prison marked its 20th anniversary on Thursday, with two of its units sitting vacant.

It’s not that Idaho doesn’t have enough prisoners — it’s short on money. Inmates have been shifted to the cheapest beds available, like those down the road at the privately operated Idaho Correctional Center, where many of the inmates are housed dorm-style in huge rooms with rows of bunk beds and open toilets.

Idaho’s state Department of Correction was able to eliminate 16 positions because it closed 72 beds at the Maximum Security Institution, called the Max, and a similar number of beds at the state-run Southern Idaho Correctional Institution. The private ICC opened a 628-bed addition.

But the state is now managing 500 more offenders than it did a year ago, with $28 million less in funding.

Furloughs and other money-saving moves are in the works for department employees, but state Correction Director Brent Reinke told lawmakers recently that they’re “not sustainable” for continuing to appropriately manage the inmate population.

The Max houses the state’s most dangerous offenders, including those on Death Row. It now has 442 inmates. When it first opened in 1989, every cell was for just one prisoner, but as Idaho’s prison population burgeoned in the 1990s many were doubled up. Since then, it’s gone back the other way.

“With the offenders that we have and the violence we have, we’ve had to go down to more single cells,” said Pam Sonnen, chief of prisons for the Department of Correction.

Sgt. David Belz has worked as a prison guard at the Max for the past 11 years. The biggest change he’s seen: “The attitude of the inmates.” He said, “We’re getting younger and younger inmates, they have no respect for anybody, they’re all involved in these gangs.”

Jeff Ray, spokesman for the Department of Correction, said, “Gangs have become much more prevalent. That’s a significant management issue — you have to keep some of them apart.”

The E-block and G-block, both of which have been empty since early September, are the oldest buildings at the Max, originally constructed in the 1970s as part of the medium-security prison next door. “At some point we’re going to have to put inmates back in there,” Sonnen said. Idaho’s been lucky that for the last couple of years, its prison population has been “relatively stable,” she said. “Thank goodness we don’t have a huge population growth, because the state can’t afford it right now.”

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