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Otter now open to considering state takeover of troubled private prison

Wed., Oct. 9, 2013, 12:52 p.m.

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter now says he’s open to ideas from legislative leaders and others on whether the state should take over running its troubled private prison, or whether a new private operator should be sought.

“I’m going to listen to other people,” Otter said. “I’m not foreclosing that discussion.”

Corrections Corp. of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, announced last week that it will leave Idaho, and won’t submit a new bid to operate the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise when its contract ends next summer. The state Department of Correction is developing a request for proposals for a new private operator.

“I am confident that I am not the source of all great wisdom,” Otter said. He said he wants to “hear all the ideas from JFAC and all the ideas from leadership, as to what we ought to do.” JFAC is the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which sets the state budget.

Otter long has been an advocate of privatization of government services, and in 2008 he floated legislation to change Idaho laws to allow private firms to build and operate prisons in Idaho and even import out-of-state criminals to house in them. The idea made lawmakers squirm, and Otter backed off.

CCA, which has been the target of multiple lawsuits over prison violence and understaffing at the ICC, is the nation’s largest private prison company, controlling more than 40 percent of the market and housing more than 80,000 inmates in the United States. The second-biggest firm, GEO Group of Florida, houses close to 62,000 U.S. inmates – but Idaho has already had a bad experience with GEO Group.

In 2007, Idaho pulled hundreds of its inmates out of two GEO Group prisons in Texas after problems including riots, a suicide, an escape, and complaints about everything from squalid conditions to a lack of programs, adequate food and even adequate lighting.

“We’ve not had anything to do with GEO Group since we pulled out of Texas,” state Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said Wednesday.

Idaho currently has 239 inmates housed out of state due to overcrowding, all of them at the CCA-run Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo.

Idaho’s prison system has repeatedly sought permission to submit its own bid to run the ICC, but the state Board of Correction has rebuffed the idea, with board Chairwoman Robin Sandy saying she didn’t want to grow state government.

Otter said this week that he never told Sandy to take that position. “But she knows how I value the private sector in most cases, private-sector operations,” he said, “and where we can do something better, cheaper than the public sector … I’m in favor of it.”

An Associated Press analysis of the costs to run the ICC in 2012 found that any savings compared to state-run prisons were more than offset by other factors, including contract oversight costs and the fact that inmates with chronic medical or mental health needs are barred from ICC, allowing it to have a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than state lockups that take all prisoners.

Last week, the state of Michigan announced that it won’t transfer inmates to a privately run prison because the state’s estimated cost to house the 968 prisoners involved was $12.9 million a year, while the lowest private bid was $18.6 million, the Detroit Free Press reported. Both GEO Group and MTC of Centerville, Utah submitted bids.

Otter said he will involve Sandy and the Board of Correction in any decision.

“To my knowledge, CCA’s action was independent of any anticipated public policy or any political leadership suggestion,” he said.


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