Idaho Department of Correction hopes to build new women’s prison

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports 

For the first time in more than a decade, with the support of the governor, the Idaho Department of Correction is asking lawmakers for funding to build a new prison.

On Tuesday, IDOC Director Josh Tewalt pitched his $333 million budget request to the Joint Finance Appropriation Committee, outlining some of the department’s greatest needs. The requested budget is a 6.5% increase from fiscal year 2022, not including the cost of the prison.

Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget, presented last week to JFAC, divided up a total of more than $4.56 billion across the state. 

Those recommendations included $112.4 million for a new 848-bed minimum custody women’s prison at the Idaho Department of Correction complex in Kuna. 

The state already owns the property where it wants to construct the prison, so the $112.4 million does not include the cost of land.

The cost of the new prison would be included in the Division of Public Works budget. 

While the number of people in IDOC custody has decreased, the department still houses some Idaho offenders in an out-of-state private prison or in county jails due to the lack of available space in Idaho prisons. The state pays county jails to hold people who should be under state supervision. 

On Tuesday, Tewalt said as of Jan. 12, IDOC had 475 people in custody at Saguaro Correctional Center – a private Arizona prison – and 565 state inmates being housed in county jails. 

As of Jan. 11, IDOC reported Idaho had 8,739 people in IDOC custody, including those in Arizona and in county jails. That’s down from the prior year, when the state reported more than 9,500 people in custody.

Long-term savings

The cost of housing a person at IDOC is cheaper than housing them elsewhere, Tewalt explained to the committee. It costs the state $84.80 per day to house a person out-of-state, $77.87 per day in a county jail, or $76.83 per day in an IDOC prison.

Additionally, county jails can’t offer the same rehabilitation programing, and out-of-state prisons don’t offer the same reentry programming that IDOC facilities provide. 

If the state constructs a new women’s facility, the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center would become a minimum security men’s facility. That, along with other housing shifts, would free up roughly 700 beds for men. The Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center would still be available for women who need higher security levels. 

Tewalt said IDOC currently has more than 1,000 minimum-security residents living in more restrictive housing than is necessary, such as medium-security, due to a lack of minimum custody beds. The 700 additional men’s beds would help remedy that problem.

Not only is it more restrictive for the inmates, it’s also more expensive for IDOC to house someone in medium-security custody than it is to house them in minimum-security, Tewalt said. 

Under current standards, women coming into IDOC custody often need to be transported to the Pocatello facility first for resident classification and a “reception and diagnostic unit” or RDU, and are later transported back to the South Boise facility.  A new facility at the Boise prison complex would eliminate that transportation need.

During the RDU process, the person in custody receives a physical examination, a psychological evaluation, an educational assessment, and a substance abuse evaluation. Other needs are also determined in the process. 

The new facility would also provide more medical beds, as IDOC currently only has eight medical isolation beds for women, all of which are in Pocatello, Tewalt said. 

According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 110 per 100,000 Idaho women were incarcerated in 2020. That rate is more than double the national average.

Request follows OPE report

In 2020, the state Office of Performance Evaluations issued a report on correctional capacity. The report found that it would be cheaper for the state to build a new prison than to continue placing state inmates in county jails or out-of-state facilities.

At the time of the report, Idaho’s nine prisons could hold 6,779 inmates, with operating capacity for 5,733 males and 1,046 females. Six prisons house exclusively men, two house exclusively women, and one houses both men and women. 

Using “conservative” forecasting, OPE estimated with the state’s growth, the prison population would exceed 10,800 inmates by 2025.

As of Jan. 11, IDOC reported Idaho had 8,739 people in custody. That’s down from the prior year, when the state reported having more than 9,500 people in custody. Of those in custody, 1,231 are women. 

Staffing still an issue

IDOC’s budget request includes another $7 million for ongoing personnel costs to provide pay raises to correctional officers and probation and parole officers. During the pandemic, IDOC raised correctional officer starting salaries to $19 an hour, and gave employees bonuses to support retention. Probation and parole officers were not given the same raises, so the budget request is an effort to create equity. Staffing shortages remain an ongoing issue for the department.

The department also requested another $12 million to support 20 new probation, parole and reentry specialist positions and a community reentry center in the Pocatello area, both backed by the governor.

IDOC’s budget request must still be approved by legislators later this legislative session.

<strong>Ruth Brown</strong> | Producer
Ruth Brown | Producer

Ruth Brown grew up in South Dakota and her first job out of college was covering the South Dakota Legislature. She’s since moved on to Idaho lawmakers. Brown spent 10 years working in print journalism, including newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press, where she’s covered everything from the correctional system to health care issues. She joined Idaho Reports in 2021 and looks forward to telling stories about how state policy can impact the lives of regular Idahoans.

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