BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s office announced Monday the state won’t house and jail inmates in National Guard barracks despite being asked to consider the option by top correction officials facing an overtaxed criminal justice system.
“The state will not be housing inmates at the Gowen Field barracks,” Mark Warbis, Otter’s communication director, said in an email. “The concept was discussed last week by Idaho National Guard and Department of Correction leaders. The Guard detailed its concerns and problems with the idea at that time.”
Warbis did not respond to an additional email asking when specifically the governor made his decision to nix housing inmates at the barracks.
Idaho has never before housed inmates in such facilities.
“I think it speaks to the magnitude of the situation we’re facing,” Department of Correction Director Henry Atencio said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. “We are in a spot where we really have to look at every option and get creative.”
Atencio added that the department will continue to monitor to the situation now that Otter has decided against the barracks. Possible alternatives could include setting up tents outside prison facilities or adding cots to provide enough space for overflow inmates.
Otter’s decision came just hours after the Board of Correction discussed the barracks proposal during a Monday meeting where members agreed to move forward with a $500 million plan to expand Idaho’s overcrowded prisons.
County jails also are packed, hundreds of inmates are being held temporarily at a private jail in Texas and employees are leaving for higher wages elsewhere, creating staffing shortages.
Both the board and Atencio talked about the barracks proposal that suggested the National Guard was open to exploring the option.
“It’s an interesting discussion … I think the general was great. His first analysis was: `I don’t think we can do this,’ to toward the end saying, ‘Well, let us see if we can,’” Debbie Field said, correction board chairwoman.
Idaho has signed a contract with a Texas prison to house up to 670 Idaho inmates at the end of August. Another facility in Texas already is holding 306 inmates, who will transfer to the new prison.
Idaho officials are scrambling to find space for inmates for the next month because they anticipate the prison population to keep climbing and the state’s facilities not being able to hold them.
“In my discussion with the governor over the criminal justice crisis we’re experiencing, I said, `We’re almost at the point of declaration of emergency to tell you the truth,“’ Field said.
Warbis said the governor has concluded that the Department of Correction proposal was “unworkable” but encouraged the National Guard to help in any way it can.
The three-member Board of Correction had a lengthy discussion over the plan, with members agonizing that their actions didn’t address the cause of Idaho’s growing inmate population.
Half of the Idaho inmates sentenced over the past year were convicted of drug offenses, while 20 percent of recent inmates were convicted of violent crimes, the state said.
Parole violators who committed new felony crimes also make up a large portion of the incomers.
“This should be a discussion perhaps led by the governor about sentencing reform, mental health reform issues, substance and drug use and how we are going to meet the needs of these folks being incarcerated,” Cindy Wilson said, correction board member and Democratic candidate for public schools superintendent.
“Right now, the discussion about putting more beds out is a Band-Aid. That’s a symptom of the underlying cause, and frankly, I’m really troubled by this,” she said.
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