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Idaho governor open to state-run prison

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter says he’s open to ideas from legislative leaders and others on whether the state should take over a 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 Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, announced last week that it won’t submit a new bid to operate the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise when its contract ends next summer. Otter is an advocate of privatizing 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 fill 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 Idaho prison, 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 company, 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.

Idaho 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 Idaho Correctional Center, but the state has rebuffed the idea, with Board of Correction 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.”