by NATHANIEL HOFFMAN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & daho's oh-so-tough-on-crime politicians agree on one thing: It's time to bring the prisoners home. With some 500 Idaho inmates now housed in Texas and Oklahoma, Governor Butch Otter is putting on the full-court press for his plan to sub out warehousing of inmates to a private prison company.

A trio of Otter officials, including Idaho Department of Corrections Director Brent Reinke, have been visiting lawmakers in their offices, armed with bound, color spreadsheets showing the cost of future prison building and touting the idea of privatization.

Some powerful legislators are partially resisting the governor, preferring for the state to own at least the ground on which a proposed new prison would sit.

The debate however is limited in scope, assuming some form of privatization down the road: Does the state want a privately owned and operated prison as Otter advocates or a new state-owned but privately operated lockup as many lawmakers appear to favor?

"I understand the arguments on both sides," says Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee Chairman Denton Darrington (R-Declo).

Darrington says that private prisons are easy to sell politically, but carry some baggage: Idaho could become host to hundreds of out-of-state prisoners and their families. A public prison is a hard sell -- someone has to pay for it -- but leaves the state more in control, he reasons.

The issue is driven, in part, by accusations of shoddy treatment of Idaho prisoners in other states. Idaho inmate Scott Payne took his own life in a private prison in Texas last year. Other inmates with intimate knowledge of private prisons will not be able to testify before the judiciary committees.

The GEO Group, which ran the prison in Spur, Texas, where Payne died, is a "global leader" in prison privatization, with facilities in Australia, Canada, the U.K. and South Africa, as well as across the U.S.

You don't get to be a global leader in the industry without doing business the right way, GEO lobbyist Michael Kane says. And standards at their facilities must comply with state law and negotiated contracts.

Otter's proposal to allow private prison building in Idaho does contain much oversight and what policy makers like to call "sideboards."

According to a summary provided to some lawmakers, new prisons would have to be licensed and permitted through a new Department of Corrections licensing board, guards would have to attend the equivalent of the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy and a new inspector general for corrections would have full-time oversight responsibilities.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n addition to Kane, there are at least eight lobbyists in Idaho registered to represent prison companies. These companies have made tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Otter, to the Republican Party and to elected officials on the relevant committees. The Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., to which Otter is a devotee, has argued for private prisons for years.

A 2002 Reason Foundation review argued that private prisons were outperforming state and federal prisons and costing less. But an earlier study by the federal General Accounting Office found that the opposite was true. And a 2001 report funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute detailed the many hidden public costs to prison privatization including below-the-radar state subsidies and tax breaks these companies receive.

While it is no doubt true that a private firm could build a prison more quickly than the state, as Otter argues, it is not clear that more beds are an emergent need.

Rep. Donna Boe (D-Pocatello) says that the state is going to need more beds, but that she is more focused on treatment in prison, reentry programs for inmates, drug court and alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders in the short term. Many of these ideas appear in Otter's budget as well, to various degrees, even as he pushes for a new private prison.

A decade ago the Legislature allowed for privately run prisons in Idaho. The state spent $59 million to build the Idaho Correction Center in Kuna, and it is now run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison contractor.

Most everyone who has been there, including Boe, say CCA has done a good job running the state prison. Boe says one guard told her he felt that he got better training at the state-run prison and felt safer there. And Boise Rep. Nicole LeFavour says inmate programming at the private-run prison often lacks qualified personnel and may be run by inmates themselves.

College of Idaho sociologist Robin Lorentzen takes students to most of the state's prisons as part of her Prison Experience course. Her students prefer ICC, the shiny, new privately run prison, to the old state prison.

"The biggest difference to the eye and the feel of the place has to do with the age of the two facilities," says Lorentzen, who believes that private sector prisons are not good state policy.

The big picture, she says, is that the United States has the most bloated prison system in the world.

The future, Lorentzen argues, lies in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a politician no one will accuse of being soft on crime, wants to let 22,000 non-violent inmates out on the streets this year.

Idaho's Legislature makes the laws that put people away, yet lawmakers seem to feel that the state is no longer competent to house, or ideally, to reform these convicts.

"If we are responsible for the offenders, I think that we should be directly responsible for them," Boe said.

Nathaniel Hoffman covers the Idaho Statehouse in Boise for Boise Weekly.

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