Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Idaho's Prison Labor Scandal

by Silja J.A. Talvi

Over the past decade, Idaho's state prison system has been rocked by a steady stream of scandals ranging from the sexual abuse of prisoners to the violation of prisoners' First Amendment rights.

But nothing has shaken the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) as hard as a recent investigation by the state's Office of the Attorney General, focused on a wide-scale prison labor scandal that involved furniture theft, drug and tobacco smuggling, and the firings or forced resignations of IDOC employees who questioned ongoing practices in the state's for-profit prisoner work program, Correctional Industries.

Idaho's Correctional Industries (CI) puts over 400 prisoners to work in printing, metalwork, furniture and license plate manufacture. Like most prison labor programs across the nation, Idaho's CI claims to be self-sustaining and runs on profits from sales of prisoner-produced goods and services to other state agencies and private businesses.

The extensive 22-month investigation by the state's Attorney General's office, which was made public last March, looked into widespread mismanagement and corruption in the Correctional Industries (CI) program. The investigation prompted the resignations of IDOC Director James Spalding as well as the head administrator of CI, Jung Ho "Mike" Yae.

Both Yae and Spalding came to the IDOC by way of the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC). As the Assistant Director of Correctional Industries for the Washington DOC, Yae was responsible for all aspects of state managed business operations for the division from 1994 to 1997, after which he became administrator of Idaho's CI. Spalding became director of the IDOC in 1993, after 28 years in the Washington DOC.

Although it chose not to press criminal charges against the IDOC, the Attorney General's office concluded there had been "egregious lack of supervisory oversight and control over the activities of the prisoners assigned to CI."

The most flagrant abuses of the prison labor program by prisoners apparently occurred on furniture delivery trips. During these trips, drivers permitted prisoners to visit strip clubs, meet and have sex with wives and girlfriends, and to divert stolen furniture to family members. Furniture was also apparently shuttled to a storage facility in Idaho Falls, as part of a theft ring involving former prisoners. CI prisoners maintained and controlled a separate inventory tracking systemoriginally introduced by Yaeto hide the theft of furniture.

Some prisoners also apparently used the opportunity afforded by the furniture delivery runs to smuggle tobacco and drugs behind prison walls, knowing that they would not be carefully searched when they returned from delivery tripsand that they stood to make a significant profit. (Because the IDOC prohibits smoking inside the prison, packs of cigarettes are valued more than illegal drugs, and can go for as much as several hundred dollars behind prison walls.)

But the degree to which prison administrators turned a blind eye _for the sake of CI's profitability _ proved to be the bigger scandal for the IDOC.

As the investigation revealed, Yae apparently even went so far as to terminate CI employees who challenged ongoing problems, or to coerce the resignations of CI employees who were facing potentially damaging interviews by investigators.

"The `bury the problem' mentality is pervasive and appears to have materially contributed to CI's problems," concluded the Attorney General's report.

In one of several similar situations over the last several years, Lynda Shayne, a lieutenant and an 11-year veteran of the IDOC, says she was forced out of her job when she began to complain about CI's lax security and the physical abuse of prisoners.

Shayne, who was given back a lower-ranking job at the South Idaho Correctional Institution only after her grievances against the IDOC aired on local media, admits that she continues to face an extremely hostile work environment. Shayne has retained a lawyer and taken her case to the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

"It has been a mess," said Shayne from her home in Boise. "This has been a horror story. I begged them to leave me aloneall I wanted to do was my job."

Warden Larry Wright, a 14-year-veteran of the IDOC, was also fired after he took his concerns about Yae and CI operations to Director Spalding.

In a transcript from his October 1999 interview with the Attorney General's office, Wright asserted that Spalding became angry with him when he raised his concerns. At the time, Spalding allegedly stated, "if you mess with my administrator, you mess with my office."

In the same interview, Wright also noted that the problems in IDOC's CI division have gotten worse in recent years because "there's a push to make money."

In November 1999, Norm Mallonee, the former Transportation Supervisor of CI, told the Attorney General's office that he had witnessed the forced resignation of a former CI driver in an attempt to preclude the driver from being interviewed by a prison investigator looking into CI's operations. Mallonee subsequently lost his job for his hesitancy to terminate additional CI employees for similar reasons.

In numerous other interviews, past and present CI employees alleged that Yae talked condescendingly to his staff and treated female employees particularly poorly; pushed production to the point where prisoners and employees were working in excess of 18 hours a day; and that security in CI was regularly sacrificed for the sake of profitability.

In a long interview with the Attorney General's office in August 2000, Yae admitted that the profitability of CIand the employment of as many prisoners as possiblewas his primary responsibility.

"Now, you know, in this industry the name of the game is to find ways to employ inmates. That's how we're evaluated ... That's the bottom line at every base level," stated Yae.

"[A]s I tell people, understand we receive absolutely no tax dollars," he went on to state."And I have a responsibility to pay 43 staff members their paychecks every week ... My primary focus is on the operations of Correctional Industries."

"To make a profit for Correctional Industries?" inquired Kevin Hudgens and Scott Birch, investigators for the Office of the Attorney General.

"Absolutely," replied Yae. "To cover all operating costs."

In a November 2, 2000 letter to the Attorney General's office, Yae defended his accomplishments and management skills as administrator, stressing that the statements of former employees and prisoners should be listened to with "caution."

Yae also complained that the investigation had cost him a $100,000 per year job with the California Department of Corrections as the head of CI.

"The lost job was a rare opportunity," wrote Yae. "The job in California would have put me in charge of an operation with 60 businesses in 23 locations, with over $155 million in annual sales, and responsibility for nearly 8,000 peoplea rare opportunity indeed."

Mark Carnopis, spokesperson for the IDOC, notes that numerous changes to CI have been made since the resignations of Yae and Spalding. Those changes have included the elimination of prisoners from accounting data entry responsibilities, standard pricing for CI products because of early evidence of preferential pricing to certain buyers, and an updating of CI directives.

"Product delivery has been restructured so that inmates are not traveling with CI drivers on long trips," explains Carnopis of the recent changes. "Inmates are only used on deliveries when [they] can be returned to the institution they are housing in on the same day."

"This was serious activity which should not have taken place," commented Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne in a press statement about the prison labor scandal. "But what is important is that we are able to go forward and demonstrate that there can indeed be confidence in the management of the Department of Correction, in the integrity of that management, and that the procedures that are in place in fact are being adhered to."

CI operations continue, unabated, at five prisons: Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino, South Idaho Correctional Institution, Idaho State Correctional Institution, Pocatello Women's Correctional Center and the St. Anthony Work Camp.

The new CI Administrator, Lynn McAuley, started work in January 2002. McAuley was the director of the Washington State's Correctional Industries division from May 1980 through March 1992, and CI Division Administrator for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety from March 1992 through December 2001.

Serious problems in Idaho's state prison system run deeper than this particular prison labor scandaland far beyond what some prisoners did to take advantage of CI's profit-over-security mentality, explains Kelly Winberg, President and Founder of Friends and Families of Idaho Inmates.

"There is still a lot of corruption in the [IDOC]," Winberg says. "They're putting all the blame on the prisoners, but the bottom line is, who was driving the [furniture delivery] vehicles? Why did the guards allow all of this to go on?"

Winberg says that she began to learn key details about the scandal unfolding within CI fully a year and a half before the story broke in the local media. According to Winberg, she complained confidentially to Gov. Kempthorne, urging him to investigate the issue. She was shocked to receive personal, written replies from DOC Director Spalding, downplaying her concerns.

Since the resignations of Spalding and Yae, Winberg says that she has been pleased by the choice of the new director of IDOC, Thomas Beauclair, who was appointed by the Board of Correction on September 25, 2001. Beauclair had been interim director since May 2001, and rose up in IDOC ranks over a 24-year-period.

"Beauclair has an open door policy that Spalding did not," says Winberg. "[He] wants to do something to clean up the mess that Spalding left behind ... The bottom line is that they need to start at the top, and train guards to do their jobs. They don't have the right to demean or push around these inmates."

Of particular concern to Winberg have been ongoing reports of inadequate and deadly medical care within the prison system.

Winberg asserts that the problem has become particularly egregious at the state's only privately-run prison, the Idaho Correctional Center. It's at ICC (run by the Corrections Corp. of America) that Winberg's son, a 32-year-old, is now serving a 25-year sentence for a $1,800 robberywhich involved no violence.

"My son has seen more abuse in that private prison than he's seen the whole five years he's been in. He says the brutality is horrible. It's a harsh, harsh life."

In recent years, a variety of other, alarming revelations have beset the IDOC.

In 1994, Idaho prison guard John Pribble was arrested for coercing sex with almost a dozen female inmates. The state had to shell out $765,000 to cover claims after it was discovered that prison officials had shredded records to cover for Pribble.

In 1996, the IDOC was reprimanded for putting a prisoner into solitary after he accused a guard of sexually molesting him.

And in 1999, a legislative audit discovered that 69% of the IDOC's employees rated their morale as poor or fair, while nearly half said that they were improperly trained for their jobs. More than half believed that grievances related to their work environment would not be resolved fairly, and two-thirds said that they feared they would be punished for raising grievances of any kind.

And while charges of abuse and inadequate medical care continue to crop up from year to year, the IDOC took another heavy blow late last year in a high-profile court case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho.

On December 10, 2001, the United States Supreme Court denied Idaho's request for review of a decision by the 9th Circuit of Appeals, affirming that the IDOC repeatedly retaliated against prisoners for exercising their First Amendment right to file grievances and lawsuits about the conditions of their confinement.

The denial of review came two years after the U.S. District Court had granted injunctive relief to six Idaho prisoners who had been employed as clerks to assist fellow prisoners in the preparation of legal papers. In 1999, the Court found that prison officials had retaliated against the prisoner plaintiffs by punishing them and issuing false disciplinary chargesall with the aim of preventing them from filing grievances or lawsuits regarding unconstitutional conditions of confinement. [This case will be reported in an upcoming issue of PLN .]

Marty Durand, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Idaho in Boise notes that the organization continues to receive regular complaints from prisoners, who have charged that prison administrators (illegally) open legal mail. Other common complaints, says Durand, including inadequate medical care, overcrowding, and racist practices by prison guards.

Idaho's prison population is 78% Euro-American and 15% Latino, with small numbers of African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

As a state, Idaho has the nation's fastest growing incarceration rateand the whitest and most Republican state legislature in the U.S.

In 1980, the IDOC held just 800 people in its state prisons. From 1996 to 2000, the prison population soared by 36%, to roughly 5,300 today. There are another 8,000 Idaho residents on probation or parole.

Corrections officials for the IDOC estimate that only 11% of prisoners are in education programs, and 84% have substance abuse habits.

The budget for the IDOC has also grown dramatically in recent years. From 1999 to 2000 alone, the IDOC saw a 17% increase to an annual budget of $108.3 million. For FY 2002. the state legislature has approved another 17% increasethe CI scandal notwithstandingto $127.2 million, at least partly to expand substance abuse treatment program.

Meanwhile, the IDOC prisoner population continues to increase at a clip of 38 new prisoners a month.

According to IDOC spokesperson Carnopis, the IDOC currently has no plans to build any additional prisons for male prisoners despite the steady climb in the prisoner population. Instead, the prison system has decided to build 200 additional beds for female prisoners.

The IDOC is also considering other ways of housing female prisoners, including renovating "an old slaughterhouse building to house female community-custody inmates," says IDOC spokesperson Carnopis.

As a general rule, Idaho locks up non-violent offenders for extremely long sentences, complains Winberg of Friends and Families of Idaho Inmates. Sixty percent of Idaho's prison population are currently eligible for parole, she adds, but all of them face an incredibly difficult time getting outowing to the regular denials of the Idaho Board of Pardons and Parole.

"Idaho does not rehabilitate,"she says. "This is warehousing."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based freelance journalist who writes for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor to In These Times . She is also the co-editor of Lip Magazine , available on the Internet at:

PLN would also like to thank Brigette Sarabi, of the Western Prison Project, for research assistance for this article.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login