Lawmaker wants Idaho to bid on private prison

BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho lawmaker is pushing a proposal that would give state agencies a chance to competitively bid on government work earmarked for private contractors.

The Spokesman-Review ( ) reports the legislation drafted by Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, is aimed at giving the Idaho Department of Correction a chance to compete with private prison companies for operation of the troubled Idaho Correctional Center.

Gannon says he’s not convinced the state is saving any money by paying Corrections Corporation of America roughly $30 million a year to operate the prison south of Boise. But so far, the Idaho Board of Correction has barred the state agency from determining if the state could run the prison cheaper.

“There is a view that private contractors can perform functions less expensively, but I think sometimes they can’t,” Gannon said.

Gannon drafted his bill after reviewing pay figures from other states showing that Idaho’s average wage for prison guards, $29,000 a year, is $10,000 below the national median; neighboring Nevada starts its guards at $37,563 a year. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median wage for guards at privately operated prisons is $30,460. Gannon said that shows that private prison companies can operate more cheaply in some states — but not in Idaho.

“There are other reasons why I would be uncomfortable with a private prison, but I’m just looking at it from a dollar-and-cents way,” Gannon said. “It just kind of jumped out to me.”

The Associated Press investigated the known cost differences between Idaho’s state and private prisons in 2012 and found that the Idaho Correctional Center likely costs the state the same or more than a similar public prison, in part because inmates with major chronic medical or mental health needs are kept at state facilities and in part because the state has to cover the cost of contract oversight.

CCA’s contract to run the prison expires next year and the state will begin accepting new bids to run the facility in December. In June, the Idaho Board of Correction rejected the idea of examining IDOC’s cost to run the facility, with board Chairwoman Robin Sandy saying she didn’t want to grow state government and she thought that would be the result of allowing the state to run the prison. The board made the same decision five years ago. Both times, the board’s decision has been backed by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was noncommittal on the idea of legislation and said he’s not opposed to private prisons. Nevertheless he said he supports the idea of getting a price from both the state and private companies.

“You would think that would be just a good practice,” Bedke said. “Ultimately, we’re the keepers of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Bedke suggested the Legislature’s judiciary committees could examine the issue during the 2014 session.

CCA’s operation of the Idaho Correctional Center has been the subject of several federal lawsuits from inmates and the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Idaho State Police is in the midst of a criminal investigation because CCA officials acknowledged the prison was understaffed for part of 2012 but that CCA employees submitted falsified records to IDOC showing full staffing levels.

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