Idaho prison

Inmates walk between buildings at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, south of Boise.

BOISE — The Idaho Department of Correction is getting closer to arriving at a new private prison contract that will let them get all of the inmates being held out-of-state, including the more than 600 at a private prison in Texas now, under the same roof.

The department issued an invitation to negotiate last year, seeking a new private prison contractor. The department is looking for 1,100 beds, said IDOC Director Josh Tewalt, and is looking for a single facility to house them and only them, rather than mixing them with inmates from other states.

“It’s a lot easier from a contract management standpoint to provide oversight at one facility,” Tewalt said.

One thing respondents will be rated on, he said, is how close to Idaho the facility is. One common criticism of placing inmates out-of-state, which House Minority Ilana Rubel, D-Boise brought up at a news conference Monday, is that it places a burden on inmates’ families who want to visit them and harms rehabilitation efforts by making it harder for inmates to maintain those ties. Tewalt expressed similar concerns Tuesday.

“We’re not going to pretend this doesn’t have an impact on people’s families,” Tewalt said.

As of Monday, 9,426 people were imprisoned by the Idaho Department of Correction, including 834 being held in county jails and 651 at Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Eagle Pass, Texas, a private prison run by the GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company.

Idaho’s two-year emergency contract with GEO expires Sept. 30, 2020. The number of state inmates has been climbing — IDOC reported 9,145 in September 2019, up from 8,708 in September 2018 — leading to rising costs and prompting lawmakers to look at a variety of fixes including adding more beds, changing sentencing laws and strengthening programs that could help reduce recidivism.

In his Fiscal Year 2021 budget request released Monday, Gov. Brad Little revealed he is looking to add 806 prison beds in the coming year — 160 at a new community reentry center in Twin Falls expected to open in October, 146 at Idaho State Correctional Institution and 500 new out-of-state beds. He also asked for $5.9 million for a new program to strengthen supervision for and provide services to high-risk parolees and probationers in the hopes of reducing recidivism. About two-thirds of people in Idaho prisons are there for probation or parole violations, Little said in his State of the State speech.

Tewalt said increasing capacity in-state and reducing the demand for prison beds through various other policies would be a better solution than sending more prisoners out-of-state.

“I think we have to be very candid that this is the best of our worst alternatives,” he said.

Tewalt said he expects the Board of Correction to vote on a proposal later this month. He said IDOC is looking, in this contract, for more educational and employment programs for inmates and better medical care that will at least match and possibly exceed what is available in Idaho prisons. Tewalt said this would lead to better outcomes for the inmates.

“We really tried to be thoughtful in how we do this,” he said.

Tewalt said a cost estimate for the new contract should be available before the department makes its presentation to the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Jan. 14.

Idaho corrections officials have voiced a number of concerns with the GEO contract in the past, including that it allows them to hand-pick the prisoners they take and that it leaves Idaho on the hook for much of the cost of inmate medical care. Inmates have complained about conditions at Eagle Pass, and Kim Taylor, an inmate from Idaho Falls, died there in January 2019. A review put some of the blame on failures in medical response, according to Boise Weekly.

“I think we certainly have some lessons learned in the contract with GEO,” Tewalt said. “I think it’s important as an agency that we own our responsibility in that. ... We communicated some things to the population moving (to Eagle Pass), and we weren’t able to follow through on that.”

One of IDOC’s priorities under the new contract will be to move inmates in county jails into state-run facilities. Counties take a financial loss housing state inmates, and Ada County sued IDOC in December over the issue.

“That’s going to provide some immediate relief to county jails once those moves are initiated,” Tewalt said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.