With the dawn of the politically inspired law-and-order, tough-on-crime era, prisons became the fastest growing industry in the 50 state governments, accounting also for one of the fastest growing budgets.
Prisons also have become the source of scandal—unbearable overcrowding, inhumane treatment, breeding grounds for gangs and incubators for improving criminal skills.
Not coincidentally, a lot of the problems associated with prison management grew out of the explosive growth of for-profit privately-operated prisons, whose founders lobbied states on the idea of outsourcing incarceration that could be done cheaper.
But cheap is not always better.
It's no surprise then that an Idaho inmate held in a private prison in Spur, Tex., committed suicide because of insufferable living conditions, which were probably resulting from the operator, Florida-based Geo Group, cutting costs on services as cited in the inmate's final letter to family.
"(Death) sure beats having water on the floor 24/7, a smelly pillow case, sheets with blood stains on them and a stinky towel that hasn't been changed since they caught me."
This is a black eye for Idaho. If this same inmate treatment had occurred in one of the state's own prisons, the likelihood is that a federal judge might have taken control and demanded Idaho clean up the 18th century conditions.
Just because Idaho needs to outsource prisoners to private prisons because of a shortage of cells doesn't mean its obligations to civilized treatment end when inmates are in the hands of a for-profit institution.
In fact, the obligation for oversight of private prisons will become more intense, as Idaho's cell capacity falls farther behind the increased number of prisoners being sentenced, and legislators continue to avoid building new prisons.
Idaho's Department of Corrections has 1,000 more inmates than cell space. That's why 500 have been sent to county jails at the state's cost, while the other 500 are in private prisons such as the Spur, Tex., facility.
The ultimate solution is for the federal government to produce a uniform code for housing and treatment of inmates in private prisons and enforcing them with federal laws.
However, like so many other domestic programs being deferred because of costs of the Iraq war, that must wait.
Idaho officials will be required to be more attentive to what private prison operators are up to with Idaho inmates and with Idaho tax funds.
Sending a handful of Idaho corrections officials to inspect conditions in jails and prisons where Idaho inmates are housed would be sensible, inexpensive and a warranty against abuses.