Idaho Prison Reforms Could 'Overhaul System' 

'We're behind the times and that's not a position I want to be in'

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Kevin Kempf pointed to empty chairs at the conference table where he usually summons the men and women who help run Idaho prisons.

"The chief of prisons, two deputy chiefs of prisons, they sat around this very table," said Kempf, director of the Idaho Department of Correction and the person responsible for more than approximately 24,000 offenders and 2,000 employees in the IDOC system. "I turned to them and told them, 'Give me a reason why you would want to use a dry cell.' And they gave me a number of reasons. Then I said, 'Give me a reason why you would put your son or daughter in a dry cell.' It became pretty clear that we wouldn't put anyone else's son or daughter in a dry cell, either."

The use of dry cells made headlines in July as it was revealed the practice, routinely employed by IDOC as a form of punishment, was labeled "barbaric" by a court-ordered investigator. After two days of hearings before a U.S. District judge this summer, IDOC and its dry cells were criticized in a ruling spurred by a lawsuit alleging the department manipulated prisoner medical records and covered up mistreatment.

"Sitting through those two days was grueling," said Kempf. "A lot of things were flat-out embarrassing to our department."

Kempf and other top IDOC officials stood Nov. 12 before the Idaho Board of Correction to detail what they expect to be some of the biggest prison reforms in state history. Near the top of the list of proposed reforms would be a change in how inmates are segregated. Some call it "restrictive housing." Some dub it "solitary." More than a few inmates still call it "the hole." Meanwhile, officials from the United Nations to the American Civil Liberties Union call much of it inappropriate at best and inhumane at worst.

"Any sort of reforms that allow prisoners to have increased social interaction with staff and fellow prisoners and restricts how solitary confinement is used is a step forward in the right direction," said Kathy Griesmyer, public policy strategist with ACLU of Idaho, who has been asked to be part of an IDOC work group aimed at changing restrictive housing practices.

"I hope to see a significant decrease in the use of solitary confinement throughout IDOC's facilities, whether that be through the implementation of alternative sanctions for behavioral issues, standards for use of solitary for those with mental illnesses and hopefully the adoption of minimum standards that outlines when restrictive housing is used and for how long," she said.

Kempf added the proposed reform "has to happen."

"We're behind the times and that's not a position I want to be in," he said. "This is huge."

Jeff Zmuda, chief of prisons at IDOC, told members of the Board of Correction that nearly half the nation's prisons were moving in the direction of reforming solitary confinement, "and those states that don't reform probably will have a lot of future problems in court," he said.

Zmuda called solitary confinement "a prison within a prison," where inmates may spend 22-23 hours each day and have limited visitations, exercise, showers and even religious activities, which he added could be a potential violation of constitutional rights. In a new set of guidelines from the Association of State Correctional Administrators, prisons should instead be providing appropriate access to medical care, speedier mental health assessments, an expansion of out-of-cell time and greater access to visitation opportunities. Zmuda said IDOC was inclined to limit segregation to no more than 15 days and consider alternative sanctions, such as loss of privileges, to inmates who don't present a severe threat.

"We hope to craft a mission statement for this in December, announce our planning and implementation schedule in January 2016 and target full implementation by July of 2017," said Zmuda.

Another significant set of reforms stems from Idaho Senate Bill 1357, passed in 2014, calling for changes to Idaho's probation and parole systems. The measure, signed into law by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, was triggered by analysis from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which pointed to Idaho's relatively low crime rate but an increasing rate of recidivism resulting in nonviolent criminals spending a disproportionate amount of time behind bars compared to other states. As a result, the study said, Idaho's 2012 incarceration rate was the eighth highest in the country.

"An assessment of our programs found that in nine out of 12 of our programs—including our sex offender program, substance abuse program and cognitive behavior program—they did not have a sufficient amount of evidence that they work," said Kempf. "Going forward, we have a goal that any program that IDOC delivers is research-based, evidence-based and that it works."

Kempf said the transition period can't come soon enough because old programs are being discontinued in anticipation of alternatives.

"We're starting as soon as possible. We'll start training in December. We know what we want to do," he said, adding the training would begin at the North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood, a program-specific facility with a capacity of 414 male offenders.

"I can tell you that as soon as that training is done, the next day the programs will get under way," said Kempf. "Then the training continues at our other facilities."

Kemp didn't hesitate to call the IDOC reforms significant. "It's an absolute overhaul of our system" he said.

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