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Idaho to take over privately run state prison

Idaho will take over the operation of its largest prison from one of the nation’s biggest corrections contractors, abruptly ending an experiment with privatization at a facility that has been plagued by understaffing, multiple lawsuits and allegations of contract fraud.

The state is expected to begin running the 2,080-bed Idaho Correctional Center, located just outside Boise, over the next several months, as its $29 million-a-year contract with the Corrections Corporation of America expires on June 30. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter made the announcement Jan. 3, saying he is advising the state Board of Correction to shift focus from finding a new contractor to assuming control of the facility.

“In recognition of what’s happened, what’s happening, it’s necessary. It’s the right thing to do,” said Otter, a longtime proponent of privatization who called the need to make the move “disappointing.”

CCA said that while there were “challenges” at the prison, it has and will continue to respond to the state’s concerns. It said, “despite reported issues, there are overwhelmingly more positive things that have occurred at the facility during our partnership.”

The move to end the contract comes months after an Associated Press report raised questions about how the Nashville, Tenn.,-based company was staffing the prison, and is part of a larger debate over whether prison privatization works.

Studies have arrived at differing conclusions, focusing on whether privatization saves money to whether the companies do a better job of helping reduce the chances that inmates who are housed in the facilities will go on to commit crimes.

The private prison contractors over the past several decades have been brought in to run prisons, federal lockups and county-level jails. The number of inmates housed in state and federal facilities grew from 85,500 in 2000 to more than 128,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

California officials are expanding their use of private prisons to meet a court order to reduce overcrowding.

Elsewhere, there’s been pushback, with Oklahoma’s corrections director resigning last year in a dispute over the growing use of prison privatization. Kentucky transferred about 400 female inmates out of a private prison in the state’s Appalachian region last year after a scandal involving guards sexually assaulting inmates, and Hawaii transferred female inmates out of the same prison over similar allegations.

Last year, prison officials in Texas decided not to renew contracts with CCA for operating a state jail and a pre-parole transfer center amid declining inmate populations. And Hernando County, Fla., took over operations at their CCA-run jail in 2010 in the wake of a lawsuit from inmates who said they were sexually abused at the facility.

University of North Florida criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who has written journal articles and a book on prison privatization, said the problems in Idaho reflect problems seen in private prisons elsewhere.

“A private prison corporation operates just like an old-fashioned HMO, where the less they spend the more they make,” Hallett said. “Typically they negotiate for a per diem per inmate. … There’s lots of ways to game the system, through contract violations and even just legal contracts to house easier inmates.”

It can be difficult for state and local governments to monitor and enforce the contracts, and if violations are found, it can be more enticing for states to settle for pennies on the dollar rather than to take a multi-national corporation to court, Hallett said.

“The industry, though, is in the midst of a pretty radical sea change,” Hallett said. “That involves two things: The necessity of providing a broader spectrum of services like medical, and a massive downturn in crime rates across the country.”

As a result private prison companies are becoming more selective about the places they choose to expand, targeting jurisdictions with high incarceration rates and fewer public prison beds, he said.

Issa Arnita, a spokesman for private prison company Management and Training Corporation, said he expects privatization to increase nationwide as more states turn to contractors to help them manage prison populations.

“We believe there are clear advantages to having states and contractors partner in operating correctional facilities including cost savings, competition, and innovation in offender programming,” Arnita said.

CCA notes on its website that it operates the fifth largest corrections system in the country, housing nearly 80,000 inmates at more than 60 facilities. The majority, it said, are company-owned complexes, and that it has contracts with the federal government.

The Idaho Correctional Center, which holds about one-quarter of the state’s roughly 8,000 inmates, has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud. Some of the lawsuits have resulted in federal court orders to improve conditions.

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

In response, the state corrections department 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.

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

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.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 3 with more information.

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