Prison

The state of Idaho is on the verge of repeating a terrible mistake. The Idaho Department of Correction has announced that it plans to contract with CoreCivic to house hundreds of inmates in Colorado due to a shortage of prison beds.

All you need to know to see that this is a terrible idea is CoreCivic’s former name: Corrections Corporation of America. That’s right, the same CCA that tolerated such high levels of violence at the Idaho State Correctional Center that it became known to inmates as the Gladiator School.

If the 1,000-plus inmates are housed there as planned, rebranded CCA will get around $28 million a year from taxpayers, almost as much as it received to back in the days it was running the Gladiator School.

The prison earned that moniker because CCA neglected and mistreated inmates, which it has a considerable track record of doing at facilities around the nation. The conditions came to light when security videos revealed a local man being beaten to the point of brain damage as he begged guards for help and they looked on, doing nothing. Federal courts found the company had falsified staffing records and held it in contempt.

The state of Idaho should hold it in contempt as well. CCA must surely understand the logic here. When someone has proven a bad actor and a threat to the community, they need to be prevented from causing further harm.

Put CCA in contract prison. Don’t give them a dime.

This proposed contract comes from the IDOC, but it isn’t truly the department’s fault. It is acting within constraints set by lawmakers, and it’s up to senators and representatives to right the ship.

Here’s the fundamental problem: In 1980, there were fewer than 1,000 Idahoans in the state prison system. Without sweeping reform, there may soon be more than 10,000.

You would expect substantial growth in the prison population over that time since the state’s population has grown by 82 percent, but you would not expect a 10-fold increase.

Idaho’s sentencing system is even more out of proportion than it seems. Following a broad national trend observed both in states that implemented harsh sentencing and those that are more lenient, Idaho crime rates have plummeted since 1980. The violent crime rate is down some 27 percent, and the property crime rate is down a whopping 67 percent, according to FBI data.

Idaho’s high incarceration rate costs our taxpayers about $250 million per year.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, asked a simple question during a recent hearing that all lawmakers should ponder long and hard: “What is the purpose of prison?” It’s clear that sentencing as a whole needs to be fundamentally rethought.

A number of possible reforms suggest themselves:

  • Reinstitute the good-time policy, which lawmakers eliminated in the 1980s, that reduced sentences for prisoners who show they are capable of good behavior behind bars. Make it retroactive, and parole prisoners who there’s good reason to believe are no longer a threat to society.
  • Refocus drug policy to emphasize treatment and supervision, even in many trafficking cases. Get rid of felony charges for possession.
  • Focus harsh sentencing on violent and sexual offenders only.

The alternative is to invite CCA back into the system, which would also mean the return of an actor with a perverse financial incentive to push for harsher sentencing in all circumstances. Don’t take our word for it. Listen to the company itself, in its filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“While a substantial portion of our cost structure is fixed, a substantial portion of our revenue is generated under facility ownership and management contracts that specify per diem payments based upon daily occupancy,” the company told investors. “We are dependent upon the governmental agencies with which we have contracts to provide offenders for facilities we operate. We cannot control occupancy levels at the facilities we operate. Under a per diem rate structure, a decrease in our occupancy rates could cause a decrease in revenue and profitability.”

For CCA, the purpose of prison is profit. They’ve shown they’ll understaff and allow violence to fester in order to have more of it. An empty prison bed is the same to them as an empty seat to an airline: an uncompensated cost for which they’ll have to answer to investors.

Better for them to have a lucrative Gladiator School. But worse for us.

The Post Register’s editorial board consists of Publisher Travis Quast, Managing Editor Monte LaOrange and editorial writer Bryan Clark. Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.