Though a $500 million prison expansion proposal is headed for Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s desk, one state lawmaker thinks investing that amount in other systems would better reduce the state’s growing incarceration rates.
Severe overcrowding in Idaho correctional facilities had the Idaho Board of Correction members saying on Monday that the state is facing a “criminal justice crisis” that might require it to declare an emergency and begin housing overflow inmates at National Guard barracks at Gowen Field in Boise.
While Gov. Butch Otter’s communications director, Mark Warbis, says the state won’t be housing prisoners at Gowen Field, the Board of Corrections did approve the $500 million prison expansion proposal that — barring a signature from the governor — is set for inclusion in the budget that will be presented to state lawmakers in January.
During a visit with inmates at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center last week, Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she was shocked when she first saw how much a new prison and several expansion projects could cost taxpayers. Wintrow, who toured the prison with Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, called the proposal that corrections officials delivered to the state Board of Correction on June 11 “a big wake up call.” The Board unanimously approved the proposal on Monday.
As opposed to prison expansion, Wintrow said spending $500 million on education, healthcare, workforce training and bolstering aftercare support for those already incarcerated is a much better solution than solely expanding facilities.
“We need to go to the root causes of incarceration and find out how we are investing in things like education — early childhood education in particular as we know there is a high correlation rate with literacy and correction behavior,” said Wintrow, who serves on the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee. “If it were me, I’d say we need to invest in education, education, education.”
Wintrow continued, “But we also have good-paying skilled jobs that are going unfilled. I would invest in training for a skilled workforce. The mental health system in our state is not working. What we need is a comprehensive continuum of care that includes preventive education, treatment and successfully transitioning these people out so that they don’t come back.”
Wintrow said visiting about 370 of the state’s 8,600 prison inmates gives her the opportunity to fulfill a responsibility to create informed policies by “seeing people as human beings, seeing what they are really going through and listening.”
“It is my responsibility to see what I am making decisions about and to not philosophize and theorize about things but really see people where they are,” she said. “I do think that makes a big difference in policy creation.”
Officials expect the number of state inmates to rise to more than 10,000 by the end of 2022.
Since Idaho launched its criminal justice reinvestment initiative in 2014, state lawmakers, judges, corrections officials and substance abuse workers have worked tirelessly to decrease the state’s prison population.
New legislation has been passed recently that has improved the way Idaho tracks crime and recidivism rates. The legislation has also changed the way substance abuse treatment funding is distributed and has provided probation and parole officers with more flexibility in sanctioning offenders who are violating probation rules.
However, the state’s prisons remain above capacity, county jails are packed full and hundreds of Idaho inmates are temporarily being held at a private jail in Texas.
Further, the state recidivism rate for prisoners right now is around 35 percent and has remained relatively static in recent years, according to Amanda Gentry, the warden of the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center.
Gentry said that female felony conviction is up 38 percent, adding that drug convictions — specifically methamphetamine and heroin cases — is one of the biggest contributors to that figure.
Among newly sentenced inmates in the past year, nearly half went to prison for drug crimes, while just 20 percent were incarcerated for violent or sexual-related crimes, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.
It’s because of these surging number of drug convictions that Wintrow said state lawmakers have started looking into adjusting how offenders are sentenced.
During one of her initial visits to the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center a few years ago, Wintrow said that just one or two of about 13 women she visited with who were serving mandatory minimum sentences were incarcerated for drug trafficking.
“The rest were here for an addiction problem,” she said. “To think about the amount of time they have to spend here for an addiction problem I would much rather invest that money into substance abuse treatment or into community-based services to keep people out in the community, happy with their families and in a job working. We should not be sending people to prison to get their addiction services.”
During her visit at the women’s prison in Pocatello, Wintrow said she noticed not only a “night and day difference” in the way inmates were treated by corrections officers, but noted that the overall philosophy of incarceration in Idaho has shifted.
And that’s because the attitudes and methods truly have changed, according to Ross Castleton, the deputy chief for the Division of Prisons.
“We’ve completely changed the way that we look at incarceration,” Castleton said. “It isn’t just locking people up and letting them sit their time out. We teach our officers to be positive role models and have positive interactions with inmates. We’ve learned that the hands-off approach doesn’t work. We want to build relationships and focus on seeing people succeed.”
A significant aspect of the state’s prison reform measures also includes focusing on rehabilitation services and coordinating reentry into the community for those already behind bars, Gentry said.
“We’ve invested our money into increasing our work centers with construction underway on a new work center in Twin Falls,” Gentry said. “We’re working on getting inmates more normalized as opposed to institutionalized. We are trying to bring their families in more frequently, both in person and with video visitations.”
If Castleton had it his way, Idaho would be closing prisons down because reform has been so successful.
“But the fact of the matter is we are forced to ask for more beds because we are just stacked up,” he said. “We’ve added hundreds of beds to our system and just can’t add any more.”
Though Wintrow has advocated for spending the proposed $500 million for prison expansion into other systems, she said convincing other colleagues in the statehouse of the same will be no easy task.
But half a billion dollars is a significant chunk of change that Wintrow said should be large enough to capture the attention of her fellow lawmakers.
“Idaho is about to get a half-billion dollar wake-up call,” Wintrow said Monday in written statement. “If this doesn’t spark a serious discussion about criminal justice reform and the underlying problems that lead people to prison — poor investments in schools, healthcare and job training — I don’t know what will. If Idaho stays on this path, we’re going to be talking about building yet another prison ten years from now. The only difference is, it will cost a lot more than $500 million. Consider me awake.”
Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press contributed to this report.