TWIN FALLS — As many as 120 minimum-security state prisoners could soon find themselves living and working in the Magic Valley.
The Idaho Department of Correction is interested in reopening a community reentry center in the Twin Falls area, much like the one that closed in 2011, IDOC director Henry Atencio confirmed Tuesday. The proposal has the support of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who recommended funding for the center in his fiscal year 2019 budget.
It’s thought that the proposed center, which would allow low-risk, low-security inmates to live and work in the community in the months leading up to their release, could help reduce recidivism rates and alleviate the state’s prison overcrowding problem.
The new center would offer roughly the same programming and opportunities as the Twin Falls Community Work Center, which closed after 19 years of operation due to a decreasing demand for work center beds in the state, according to Atencio. The old center employed 13 people at the time of its closure; the new center would likely have between 12 and 15 employees.
The main difference between the two is the building itself: the South Washington St. location of the Twin Falls Community Work Center was leased by the state. However, IDOC hopes to either buy or build any new center in Twin Falls, Atencio said. The governor has requested that $9,114,200 be transferred to the Permanent Building Fund to do so.
The state of Idaho currently has four reentry centers: two in the Boise area, and one each in Idaho Falls and Nampa.
While the centers offer various rehabilitation programs and other means of support, their main draw is the chance for inmates to work in the outside world as they prepare for release — a valuable networking opportunity for incarcerated people, who often struggle to find employment after leaving prison.
“If you’re facilitating contacts with prospective employers, that can be very helpful,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “A job is an important part of successful reintegration.”
An outside job also typically pays higher wages than a job in prison, providing inmates with money that can go toward things such as restitution and child support.
“They’re going to make more money in a work center than they will in a job behind a prison fence,” Atencio said. “It’s just a great opportunity to really set up an inmate for a better transition back into our communities.”
Twin Falls Sheriff Tom Carter said he would welcome another reentry center to the area, as his department rarely received calls regarding trouble at the old center.
“I think when inmates get to a position that they land in a work center, they very seldom cause problems,” Carter said. “It gives us somewhat of a heads up on who is coming back into the community.”
Another expected benefit of the proposed center: its potential to alleviate severe overcrowding in state prisons. The new center in Twin Falls likely would have about 120 beds, according to Atencio.
Carter is hopeful that the alleviation effect could trickle down to the Twin Falls County Jail, which has regularly surpassed its capacity in recent months.
“A lot of the inmates we have are state inmates, and that’s because they don’t have a bed to put them in,” Carter said. “This could help some.”
While the addition of 120 new beds in the state could provide some immediate relief to the prison system, the more significant effects of adding a fifth reentry center would likely be felt down the road.
“One of the reason why states are flocking toward the use of specifically designed reentry centers is if we can help offenders address the impediments to reentry, then the recidivism rates are a lot lower,” said Shaun Gann, assistant professor of criminal justice at Boise State University.
“If they are able to successfully reintegrate back into the community, then five, six, 10 years down the road we can potentially start seeing less and less incarceration, simply because we have fewer repeat offenders going to prison,” he said.
La Vigne of the Urban Institute acknowledges that reentry centers can provide inmates nearing release with useful tools for reintegration.
But she questions whether dedicating more resources to help low-risk, minimum-security offenders is the most effective use of the state’s money.
“The research tells us that you should focus those resources on people who are at higher risk of recidivism and have greater needs for support,” La Vigne said. For these inmates, she notes, “there’s no step down.”