Idaho to take over privately run prison

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, multiple lawsuits and allegations of contract fraud.

The state is expected to begin running the 2,080-bed Idaho Correctional Center, just outside Boise, over the next several months, as its $29 million-a-year contract with the Corrections Corporation of America expires on June 30. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter made the announcement Friday, saying he is advising the state Department of Correction to shift focus from finding a new contractor to assuming control of the facility.

“In recognition of what’s happened, what’s happening, it’s necessary. It’s the right thing to do,” said Otter, a longtime proponent of privatization who called the need to make the move “disappointing.”

CCA said that while there were “challenges” at the prison, it has and will continue to respond to the state’s concerns. It said, “despite reported issues, there are overwhelmingly more positive things that have occurred at the facility during our partnership.”

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 their 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.”

It can be difficult for state and local governments to monitor and enforce the contracts, and if violations are found, it can be more enticing for states to settle for pennies on the dollar rather than to take a multinational corporation to court, Hallett said.

“The industry, though, is in the midst of a pretty radical sea change,” Hallett said. “That involves two things: the necessity of providing a broader spectrum of services like medical, and a massive downturn in crime rates across the country.”

As a result, private prison companies are becoming more selective about the places they choose to expand, targeting jurisdictions with high incarceration rates and fewer public prison beds, he said.

Issa Arnita, a spokesman for private prison company Management and Training Corp., said he expects privatization to increase nationwide as more states turn to contractors to help them manage prison populations.

“We believe there are clear advantages to having states and contractors partner in operating correctional facilities, including cost savings, competition and innovation in offender programming,” Arnita said.

CCA notes on its website that it operates the fifth-largest corrections system in the country, housing nearly 80,000 inmates at more than 60 facilities. The majority, it said, are company-owned complexes, and that it has contracts with the federal government.

The Idaho Correctional Center, which holds about one-quarter of the state’s roughly 8,000 inmates, has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud. Some of the lawsuits have resulted in federal court orders to improve conditions.

Early last year, an investigation examining overtime records and staffing reports from the prison showed some of CCA’s reports to the state wrongly showed guards working shifts that were left vacant.

In response, the state corrections department asked the Idaho State Police to investigate possible contract fraud.

CCA officials have acknowledged that at about 4,800 hours of guard posts were left unstaffed despite reports showing otherwise, and CCA leaders have promised to cooperate with the investigation.

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