BOISE – The Idaho State Penitentiary Service has unanimously approved plans for a new 800-bed women’s prison south of Boise, along with other smaller projects that together would add nearly 1,050 to the state’s total prison beds.
Idaho has not built a new prison since 2000; a much larger $ 500 million prison expansion plan, which the board endorsed in 2018, turned out to be a political non-starter and was never proposed to lawmakers. The board vote on Wednesday was the first step in a smaller and more targeted infrastructure plan for the state prison system that focuses on the most needed type of prison bed: minimum liability. These are also the least expensive to build.
“We want to make sure we are building prison infrastructure that is conducive to the results we want,” said Josh Tewalt, director of the state penitentiary.
The plan would cost between $ 130 million and $ 170 million; If approved, it would allow prison rooms south of Boise, now used to house female inmates, to be converted back into the neediest beds in the division for male inmates. All in all, the state would end up with 959 additional prison beds for men and 129 additional prison beds for women, while the space available is better geared to the most urgent needs of the prison system.
“It was a long way here,” said Tewalt on Wednesday to the three-member board. “We went back to the drawing board. … What lies in front of you today is the product of this work. “
Board member Dodds Hayden moved to approve the proposal, board member Karen Neill supported the proposal and was unanimously approved. Idaho had 8,537 inmates in custody Wednesday morning, including 373 in a private Arizona prison and 526 in county prisons. 7,344 of them are men and 1,193 women.
Idaho currently has a women’s prison in Pocatello that includes medium and narrow beds; that wouldn’t change. But most of the current female inmates are actually housed in Boise, in lower security units, some of which have been converted from male prison units with minimal custody.
The proposed new women’s prison would have 800 minimum security beds in three residential units in what Tewalt said “looks more like a student apartment than a traditional prison concept,” along with 48 secure beds. It would include a new admission and diagnostic unit so that all new female inmates would not have to be transported to Pocatello before being returned to their lower captivity prisons in Boise.
The plan would allow 719 beds now being used for female inmates in two other Boise prison facilities to be converted back to minimum male detention beds.
The plan also includes the construction of a new two-story 280-bed unit at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, the state’s main medium-term men’s prison south of Boise, that includes a new 140-bed, 140-bed medical unit for the general population. An existing extension that is now used for medically needy prisoners would be renovated and brought to medium safety standards; and ISCI Unit 7, which has long faced legal issues due to its small cells and outdated design, would be completely rebuilt, reducing the beds by 40 and modernizing the design.
Tewalt said both the Appendix and Unit 7 have been the subject of court-imposed population caps and other restrictions as part of longstanding litigation in federal courts. “It’s an opportunity for us to just fix it, stop working around it,” he said. “We would go ahead and revise these two specific units.”
Unit 7, he said, is “an old school prison structure that can be got. It gives us the chance to take that off the table in the long run ”and at the same time to create space that is supposed to promote“ better results ”.
A 2020 study by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations found that building new prisons could save Idaho money in the long run as current state prison facilities are older and inefficient, driving up operating costs, including staffing requirements. Tewalt said the new plan is based on the study’s findings and includes “decision points” that will be built in in future years when other obsolete prison facilities in Idaho could be upgraded.
Idaho’s prison population saw explosive growth through 2019 but declined during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. That is now starting to recover.
“What are we doing for this growth that we know is to come?” said Tewalt.
He noted that the state has invested in resources in recent years, including a new “Liaison and Intervention” program aimed at slowing the number of newly released inmates who end up back in prison. “The significant investments that the governor and legislature have made … will help us change that growth curve over time,” said Tewalt. “We expect a certain growth, because ultimately we are dealing with people and our population is growing.”
The approval of the board of directors was a political decision about the infrastructure priorities of the prison system. After that, Tewalt said, there will be “a more political process” in which “it is up to the governor’s office, financial management department, legislature and other stakeholders to figure out the best way forward.”
Governor Brad Little was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon at a funeral and after the board’s vote. It will present its draft budget for next year to the legislature when it meets for its next ordinary session in January.
Betsy Z. Russell is Boise Office Manager and State Capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.