BOISE – Idaho will take over the operation of its largest prison from one of the nation’s biggest corrections contractors, abruptly ending an experiment with privatization at a facility that has been plagued by understaffing, violence, multiple lawsuits and allegations of contract fraud.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter announced the move regarding the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise on Friday, saying it was “necessary” and “the right thing to do.”
It was a dramatic turnaround for Otter, who long has been an advocate of prison privatization. In 2008, he floated unsuccessful legislation to change state laws to allow private companies to build and operate prisons in Idaho and import out-of-state inmates. Later, he suggested privatizing the 500-bed state-run Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino.
“It’s disappointing because I am a champion of privatization,” Otter told reporters Friday morning. “We had better hopes for outcomes in privatization.”
The state will take over operations at the troubled lockup by June 30, when Corrections Corp. of America’s contract ends. The firm already had said it wouldn’t submit a bid to continue to run the Idaho Correctional Center. The nation’s second-largest private prison operator, GEO Group, also said it wasn’t interested.
Inmate violence was so prevalent at the ICC that it earned the nickname “Gladiator School.”
As troubles continued to mount at the 2,080-bed prison, state lawmakers were poised to begin debating a state takeover during their upcoming legislative session. Otter’s surprise announcement put that talk to rest.
“In recognition of what’s happened, what’s happening, it’s necessary,” the governor said.
The state has a $29 million-a-year contract with CCA; Otter said he’s been advised that the state Department of Correction could run it for “very, very close” to the same amount.
CCA said that while there were “challenges” at the prison, it has and will continue to respond to the state’s concerns. The company said in a statement, “Despite reported issues, there are overwhelmingly more positive things that have occurred at the facility during our partnership.”
The move to end the contract comes months after an Associated Press report raised questions about how the Nashville, Tenn.-based company was staffing the prison and is part of a larger debate over whether prison privatization works.
Studies have arrived at differing conclusions, focusing on everything from whether privatization saves money to whether the companies do a better job of helping reduce the chances that inmates will go on to commit more crimes.
Around the country, private prison contractors have been brought in to run prisons, federal lockups and county-level jails over the past several decades. California officials are expanding their use of private prisons to meet a court order to reduce overcrowding.
Elsewhere, there’s been pushback, with Oklahoma’s corrections director resigning last year in a dispute over the growing use of prison privatization. Kentucky transferred about 400 female inmates out of a private prison in the state’s Appalachia region last year after a scandal involving guards sexually assaulting inmates, and Hawaii transferred female inmates out of the same prison over similar allegations.
Last year, prison officials in Texas decided not to renew contracts with CCA for operating a state jail and a pre-parole transfer center amid declining inmate populations. And Hernando County, Fla., took over operations at its CCA-run jail in 2010 in the wake of a lawsuit from inmates who said they were sexually abused at the facility.
University of North Florida criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who has written journal articles and a book on prison privatization, said the problems in Idaho reflect problems seen in private prisons elsewhere.
“A private prison corporation operates just like an old-fashioned HMO, where the less they spend the more they make,” Hallett said. “Typically, they negotiate for a per diem per inmate. … There’s lots of ways to game the system, through contract violations and even just legal contracts to house easier inmates.”
The Idaho Correctional Center holds about one-quarter of the state’s roughly 8,000 prison inmates.