U.S. Markets closed

Idaho Department of Correction budget set

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho's legislative budget writers have approved a 7 percent increase in general funds for the Department of Correction, with the bulk of the money going to cover cost increases in the state's contracts with private prison companies and a medical care provider.

Though the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved the $202 million budget — including $180 million in general funds — with unanimous votes Tuesday morning, several members voiced concerns about the cost and value of Idaho's contract with Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company that runs the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, proposed attaching language to the budget encouraging the Correction Department to seek bids from other companies and to submit a bid of its own to run the prison, which has been the subject of several lawsuits over inmate violence and poor management.

The committee voted 4-14 against the motion, but several members including Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said they supported the idea of the department of correction examining all options when it comes to who runs ICC. Cameron said he voted against the motion because he believes it was beyond the scope of the budget-setting committee, and would be better dealt with by a policy-setting committee or by the executive branch.

"I think it would be really nice to have an honest evaluation of the costs," Ringo said before the committee meeting. "But I know there are some political realities that come into play."

The state pays CCA just under $30 million to run the prison, including a contractually required 3 percent increase worth about $135,000 approved by the committee Tuesday.

But the Idaho Department of Correction has never determined just how much it would cost if the department were to run the prison.

About five years ago, Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke asked the Board of Correction and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's office if his department could bid for the contract to run ICC — a move that would have given Idaho a firm idea of how much it would cost to make the facility public, along with a more general idea of what kind of profit private companies could expect to earn while running the prison. But the board responded with a firm "no" and the governor's office simply deflected the matter back to the board.

But an examination of comparative costs done by The Associated Press last year showed that the contract with CCA may not offer any cost savings at all, and privatization could actually be costing the state more money than if the Idaho Department of Correction ran the lockup.

The prison has had a string of problems, including multiple lawsuits alleging mismanagement and rampant inmate-on-inmate violence that resulted in financial payouts to some inmates and a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho that required widespread management and operational changes at the lockup.

Just last month the Idaho Department of Correction announced that the Idaho State Police had been called in to investigate apparent discrepancies in staffing and overtime documents that CCA is required to give the state on a monthly basis. A review of public records obtained by The Associated Press showed that CCA was listing some workers as being on duty for 48 hours straight, but that those same workers apparently weren't paid for that many hours.

The police investigation is ongoing.

"I certainly understand ... that we have to be careful of mixing policy with the job of JFAC, but I think our job is to carefully spend the people's dollars and understand what we're getting in service for the people's money," said Ringo. "I think we need a good look at it, that we can only get through a good, competitive bidding process."

CCA's contract with Idaho expires June 30, 2014, though the state has the option of two two-year expansions that could stretch the contract to the summer of 2018.

If lawmakers want the Department of Correction to bid on running the facility, the department would have to get to work on formulating a bid right away, department Director Brent Reinke told the committee.

"Either way, the operation of that facility is critically important and it would not affect our monitoring, our auditing that is currently under way, or our relationship with that company," Reinke said.

Cameron asked Reinke what steps the department takes when deciding whether or not to bid on running the facility. The Board of Correction ultimately makes that decision, Reinke said, based on information from the department, information about how the contract terms have been met so far, and other factors.

Though he voted against Ringo's motion, Cameron said after the meeting that he supported the idea of the Department of Correction bidding on running the facility and soliciting bids from other private companies.

"I certainly believe the department should look carefully at every contract they've got," he said. "I'm just not sure that it's our role. I'm in favor of every option being evaluated, but it should be evaluated by those who have the authority to do so."