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Corrections nixes planned mental health prison

John Miller, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The Idaho Department of Correction and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter are backing away from plans to build a mental health prison south of Boise, citing concerns over escalating operating costs.

Less than a month ago, Otter announced the $70 million, 579-bed facility in his State of the State speech. But on Monday, Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke withdrew the proposal, with Otter's blessing.

Reinke said he'd been beset with questions from legislators, as well as members of the public, about the project's projected $25 million annual costs — and whether the new facility really fits with Idaho's priorities for helping address mental health and substance abuse issues. Instead, Reinke says he'll work with the Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho's courts system, the Criminal Justice Commission and other groups on alternatives.

"This is not to say that the need is any less for corrections; it is to say that a systemic approach is needed for behavioral health services statewide," Reinke said in a statement. "Improvements to behavioral services, both in Idaho communities and inside state correctional facilities, will be at the heart of this plan."

The plan for a $70 million prison was first floated in 2008, but it never went forward because of the faltering economy.

Interviewed Monday after the announcement, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and co-chairman of the Legislature's budget writing committee, said Otter's splashy resurrection of the project on Jan. 7 during his annual speech caught legislators flatfooted.

The governor didn't include money to operate the new facility in his budget plans, Cameron said, leaving some to wonder how the project would fit into future state spending plans.

There were also questions about the appropriateness of a facility slated to house not only mentally ill people who had been convicted of crimes, but also those who hadn't been convicted but were deemed too dangerous to themselves or others to remain free.

"We need a secure mental health facility, but it needs to be one we can afford and one whose approach makes sense," Cameron said.

For his part, Otter says he still thinks a secure mental health facility is needed — just not the kind he wanted to pursue only four weeks ago.

"Such an investment must be considered in the context of our limited resources and our evolving behavioral health environment," the Republican governor said, on the reasons behind his swift about-face.