Who’s watching Idaho’s inmates?

BY KATHLEEN KRELLER – kkreller@idahostatesman.com
Copyright: © 2010 Idaho Statesman
Published: 04/25/10
So far it hasn’t meant more violence, but it’s a recipe for inmate management problems like property damage, litigation, suicide, fighting and sexual assault, according to a January report by the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluation.

State prison officials say they are forced to weigh meager dollars against those risks, said Pam Sonnen, Division of Prisons chief for the Idaho Department of Corrections.

“It would be cost-prohibitive for me to provide staff to observe all inmates 24 hours a day,” Sonnen said. “Our prisons are safe.”

WORKING BACKWARDS

In the current and past fiscal years, Gov. Butch Otter has imposed budget holdbacks and cuts. The department faces a $2.9 million reduction in funding next year. Meanwhile, department projections show the number of inmates will increase by more than 1,300 by 2013.

The department is “more or less forced to work backwards,” assigning security staff to monitor inmates based on money and bodies available, not on need, said Maureen Brewer, one of Idaho’s senior performance evaluators.

Best-practice standards for facilities certified by the American Correctional Association say prisons should determine the number of correctional officers needed for continuous supervision based on inmate population and building design.

Continuous supervision means that correctional officers can observe an inmate instantly, either by camera or in person. It means there are no hidden areas in housing units.

Idaho’s privately run prison, the Idaho Correctional Center, is the only prison in the state to be accredited by the ACA.

Sonnen said for state-run facilities, she tallies the staff she has available and then determines where security posts and officers are located. If IDOC were to follow national standards, Sonnen said, she’d need to hire from 40 to 50 more security staff.

“That’s in an ideal world,” Sonnen said. “But it is not realistic.”

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