At Idaho Prison Arts Collective, our goal is not only to engage the arts for healing and rehabilitation inside our prisons, but to change public opinion about how prisons ought to function, and help with a shift — already under way — from punishment-oriented practices to practices of healing — on both individual and community levels.
It so happens that Idaho is one of America’s most incarcerating states. Respecting the number of people Idaho puts in prison — factored against crime rate — compared with other states and countries, we are the second most incarcerating place in the world (after Kentucky). For the same amount of crime, while many states put away 200 people, Idaho imprisons 700. U.S. state averages set a poor standard, since the U.S. is by far the most incarcerating country in the world. For that amount of crime, Sweden (whose crime rate is the same as the U.S.) incarcerates only 53 people.
Idaho’s mass incarceration situation has been created by:
- over-criminalization and over-sentencing of drug possession (35% of prison admissions today)
- “truth in sentencing” laws that allow no early release for good behavior
- a three-strikes-you’re-out law that imposes automatic five-year sentences for a third felony. Most other states that once had similar laws have rescinded them.
- a very low threshold for felony theft conviction (as opposed to misdemeanor) at $1000. Most other states use $2,500.
- a required checkbox on employment forms indicating whether an applicant has served prison time
- paltry social, mental health, and drug rehab services for low-income people
As is true nation-wide, legislators in Idaho have built their careers by supporting “tough on crime” laws that lacked both compassion and foresight as to the feasibility and costs of incarcerating so many people. (Nationally, both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for our mass-incarceration system.) Idaho’s low threshold for felony theft (at $1000) is representative of a recalcitrance that is unique to our state, where a simple dollar amount is not updated according to inflation, even after decades.
Idaho’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, implemented in 2014, offered a path forward, and lowered the prison population briefly, but it was only a partial implementation of recommended measures, mainly putting more money into parole and probation resources. This did lead to a brief decline in the prison population, but having additional parole and probation officers is a mixed blessing, as it means more people get caught violating parole restrictions. Over 3,000 people every year re-enter the prison system from probation or parole.
Today, one in 35 adults in Idaho are under IDOC control, either in a prison on on probation or parole. Prisons are over-crowded, under-funded, and lacking in educational and mental health services. Many inmates are being housed in Arizona (before that Texas, and before that Colorado) and in county jails. Unfortunately, such conditions are no longer newsworthy, and most Idahoans are unaware of the situation. If you consider the families of those directly impacted by incarceration, the percentage of impacted people in our state approaches 10%.
Importantly, there is serious racism in our penal system, too. Black, Hispanic, and Native American people in Idaho are 4-5 times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crimes as white people.
Respecting re-entry, having to be “branded” a criminal, for life, and then being offered few social services and economic opportunities means that former inmates are inclined to resort to illegal behavior to attempt to care for themselves physically or mentally. Discrimination makes re-entry especially challenging as it destroys fundamental opportunities for housing and employment. For people of color, such prejudice is especially debilitating in a majority-white state like Idaho.
Organizations like the ACLU and Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy have lobbied the legislature with clear, practical, fiscally-oriented proposals for adjusting the criminal code, changes that would save tens of millions of dollars annually. But the majority in the Idaho legislature maintains its old positions. Today Idaho faces having to build a big, new prison, costing tens of millions of dollars — one that is unnecessary.
Idaho Prison Arts Collective aims to use the arts to highlight the humanity of those in the prison system, but also, we plan to educate the public about mass-incarceration, and assist legislators of both parties with possible solutions to make the prison system here more manageable and more humane.