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Idaho to take over privately-run state prison

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho's governor says the corrections department will take over operation of the largest privately-run prison in the state after recent problems including understaffing, multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation into possible contract fraud.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter made the announcement Friday at a preview of the upcoming legislative session held by the Associated Press.

Corrections Corporation of America has contracted with the state to run the prison since it was built in 1997. Taxpayers currently pay CCA $29 million per year to operate the 2,080-bed prison south of Boise.

The prison has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud, and some of the lawsuits have resulted in federal court orders to improve conditions.

CCA acknowledged last year that falsified staffing reports were given to the state showing thousands of hours were staffed by CCA workers when the positions were actually vacant.

"In recognition of what's happened, what's happening, it's necessary. It's the right thing to do," Otter said.

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

In response the Idaho Department of Correction 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 and make taxpayers whole for any unverified hours.

An AP analysis of the costs to run the prison in 2012 found that any savings compared to state-run prisons were more than offset by other factors, including contract oversight costs and the fact that inmates with chronic medical or mental health needs are barred from the facility.

That allows it to have a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than state lockups that take all prisoners.

Last fall, CCA announced that it wouldn't bid on the next contract to run the prison when its current contract expires next June.

Another major private prison corporation, GEO Group, has also informed the state that it won't bid on the contract. That narrowed the field of potential private managers dramatically, but the Idaho Board of Correction delayed on deciding whether to keep the prison private.

For years, Otter has pushed for privatizing certain sectors of government, including prisons.

In 2008, he floated legislation to change state laws to allow private companies to build and operate prisons in Idaho and import out-of-state inmates. In 2008, he suggested privatizing the 500-bed state-run Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino.

"It's disappointing because I am a champion of privatization," Otter said. "But you will see ... I'm asking the Board (of Correction) to also engage in listing those non-custodial duties at the prison that could be privatized, such as food, education and outreach.

"The priority, however, is to engage in a management plan where we will be able to take over by June 30," he said.

It's a dramatic turn-around for the state.

IDOC Director Brent Reinke has lobbied a few times in recent years to allow the agency to put together its own proposal and cost analysis for running the prison. Each time, however, Reinke and his staff have been rebuffed by the state Board of Correction.

Recently, Board Chairwoman Robin Sandy said she opposed the idea because she didn't want to grow state government.