New report shows what is working well for Idaho’s prisoner reentry programs, and what isn’t
A staffing shortage and hampered transition services are some of the main obstacles the Idaho Department of Correction must overcome to improve the reentry experience for formerly incarcerated individuals, according to a legislative report released this month.
But aside from those obstacles, some state programs seem to be working well, according to the report — including education and work-release programs.
A new report released this month by the Office of Performance Evaluations found that while some state programs seem to be helping incarcerated people take their first steps back into society, state programs alone are not enough to give formerly incarcerated individuals a smooth transition back into the community.
The Office of Performance Evaluations — a nonpartisan state agency that assesses state programs and policies — released the report to evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s reentry programs.
Reentry, the process of transitioning back into the community after incarceration, is the focus of many state and nonprofit programs who aim to help formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society.
The evaluation began after Idaho legislators identified concerns about the state’s growing prison costs and incarceration trends.
Nationally and internationally, Idaho is at the top of incarcerating its population —having a higher incarceration rate than any democratic nation and incarcerating more women than any other U.S. state. In recent years, Idaho has also exceeded prison capacity and forced the department to rely on out-of-state placements for hundreds of IDOC residents.
During fiscal year 2021, the average cost to house an Idaho prison resident was $77, and it cost $61 to house a resident at community reentry centers, according to the OPE report.
And yet, most of those incarcerated in Idaho — 98% of incarcerated people to be exact — will eventually be released from IDOC custody, IDOC spokesperson Jeff Ray previously told the Idaho Capital Sun.
The OPE’s latest report looks into the effectiveness of the state’s reentry programs and offers recommendations to the state that can help improve the process of returning to society.
Overworked and short-staffed: Staffing barriers limit reentry success, report says
A staffing shortage across different correctional programs was a recurring issue in the OPE report.
Since mid-2021, IDOC has had a staffing shortage with correction officer positions. The OPE report shows that reduced staffing levels impacts the security and safety in an IDOC facility, causing residents to experience limited access to reentry programs and opportunities.
Mark Renick, the program manager for reentry services at St. Vincent de Paul and a former IDOC resident, told the Idaho Capital Sun that he is not surprised to hear that there is a staffing shortage. He and his volunteers witness the shortage every day.
“Going back after COVID-19, volunteers and everybody else have been hampered because the department hasn’t been able to have enough staff to escort people around for volunteers to go into the prisons,” he said. “It’s just really difficult.”
Renick and program volunteers regularly pick people up from prison on the day of their release and assist them on their first day to find immediate needs such as clothing, food, transportation, a cell phone and housing.
He said a staff shortage in correctional workers plays a big impact on the success of a person preparing to leave prison.
“I see it in every way,” he said in a phone interview. “Staffing affects absolutely everything. They can’t get enough front row officers, and the caseload for (parole officers) is so high that on the outside they are tremendously overworked. They can’t get enough people in all the institutions.”
According to an OPE survey in the report, 58% of parole staff reported having insufficient time to serve every client on their caseload effectively. At the end of 2022, IDOC had 225 probation and parole officer positions who supervised 16,000 felony probation and parole clients.
The disproportion between probation and parole officers and clients puts a strain on the success of the reentry process, the report said. However, many parolees in the OPE report said they have a positive relationship with their parole officer, which according to national research, suggests that they are more likely to have a successful reentry experience.
In addition to parole and probation staff, the OPE report noted a shortage in mental health workers.
In an OPE survey, IDOC clinicians said they are being overworked, and they cannot effectively provide enough services to residents.
“We are constantly trying to provide the best care possible to our residents, but there are not enough mental health professionals employed here to adequately meet those needs,” an anonymous correctional staff member said in the report. “We do not have the time or resources available to truly address the trauma that the majority of the residents have experienced.”
Like mental health staff, case managers who help IDOC residents plan their reentry experience have limited capabilities to tend to each client.
IDOC staff reported that case managers are overworked — thus impacting their ability to help residents make reentry plans.
Case managers typically develop reentry plans and help IDOC residents connect with community resources before their release, but many former IDOC residents reported that they did not get the help they needed because their case manager was too busy or changed often.
Of the 90 case managers surveyed in the report, 36% of them said they disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that they have sufficient time to serve every resident on their caseload.
‘Reentry success depends on resources beyond the department,’ Idaho OPE report says
According to the report, education and community reentry services are key state programs that help individuals navigate their way back into the community.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, formerly incarcerated people are almost twice as likely to have no high school diploma or GED than people who have not been incarcerated. In the OPE report, Idaho correctional staff noted that incarcerated people who earn GEDs experienced improved self esteem and ability to find jobs in the community.
IDOC offers literacy certificates, GED programs and vocational training such as welding, cabinetry, media, and construction. Residents with solid records of good behavior can also learn how to shoot and edit video, and to take college-level classes and earn credits toward a degree, IDOC spokesperson Jeff Ray told the Sun.
According to the report, the department is working with some regional colleges and universities to access educational grants through the Second Chance Pell – a federal program designed to help incarcerated individuals access educational programs.
In a survey, 688 IDOC employees responded to a question asking them to rank what they think are the most important resources to help an individual during the reentry process.
Top 5 most effective reentry resources, according to correctional staff:
Reentry services (working with a reentry specialist or case manager)
Work during incarceration
However, Renick said he disagrees with correctional staff.
Renick, who was incarcerated in Idaho for seven years for a robbery offense, said education is not high on the list of someone who was recently incarcerated. Instead, he said immediate support upon release is a top priority.
“Survival is what they’re concerned about as they get out and work to establish themselves,” he said. “I don’t see anybody coming out saying if I had more education, I would be more successful.”
While Renick said support services are an important part of a successful reentry experience, Renick agreed that community reentry programs are “perfect” to help incarcerated people prepare for reentry.
In addition to its 11 Idaho prisons, IDOC also operates five community reentry centers – or centers where prison residents get jobs and can save money to help fund their transition back to society.
According to the OPE report, $5,605 was the average account balance of residents in reentry centers who worked in the community, while only $58 was the average account balance of residents in prison facilities who worked for the Department of Correction.
“Those are perfect because guys go out during the day and work in the community, and they come back at night,” he said. “They earn money and then when they’re ready to be released, it’s got money in their pocket, and they can move forward.”
Support from correctional staff plays an important role to a successful transition back into society, but IDOC resources alone are not enough to allow for incarcerated individuals to have a smooth transition back into society, the OPE said in its report.
Other resources such as private and nonprofit reentry services, community treatment providers, religious organizations, employers, housing services, state agencies, law enforcement, government-funded assistance programs, community members, and family support all play a role into a smooth reentry process, the report said.
The OPE report offered a few recommendations:
The department should implement pre- and post-program testing and participant satisfaction surveys to learn more about the effectiveness of their programs.
The department should develop additional metrics of reentry success that capture the key domains of successful reintegration identified by the National Academies of Sciences.
The Legislature could reauthorize the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee or use the standing judicial committees to monitor progress with policy and program changes, better understand resource needs, and clarify policy priorities.