Writings and observations

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In January I ran out a list of 100 influential Idahoans, among them (at number 43) a brand-new state official, appointed to the office just a couple of months earlier: Kevin Kempf, director of the Department of Correction.

A year after his appointment, I’m glad I included him. The indicators about his background I was advised of, that might make for significant changes at the state lockup, seem in fact to be leading to something new.

Kempf arrived as director on the shores of a troubled period in Idaho prisons, not least because of the private prison (aka “gladiator school”), then returning to state control. The typical response to hiring a new director, tasked with making major improvements after a bad patch, is to look outside the state, or at least the department. In this case, the Board of Correction promoted from within, and that may have been a key to significant reform.

Here’s some of what I wrote about him at the time: “Kempf is a career corrections officer, with work all along the line. He started in 1995 and spent his first years as a corrections officer, a parole officer and an investigator. He moved up through executive ranks, becoming a district (southwest area) manager, prison warden (at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino) and then a central office administrator, finally deputy director in 2012 (before which that particular job didn’t exist). His understanding of the
department has to be thorough.

“But it’s the combination with the next factor that really seals his spot in this list: He has done a lot of outside work, and made a lot of outside connections, suggesting an interest in trying new directions and new possible solutions. He spent years quietly working on court-corrections relations and planning, and discussions about how results could be improved. He has been highly active in national corrections organizations, starting his Linked In page by saying, ‘I love networking and getting to know fellow Correctional Professionals from across the country.’ By various accounts, that’s accurate.”

In other words, he knew the Idaho system from top to bottom, but also stayed involved enough with outside interests to pull ideas for improvement from a wide range of sources.

In his first year, Kempf has pushed for a variety of changes. One has been a significant pay raise for corrections officers. Another – which may help with the first – is an “open door” policy, especially for legislators who want to check out the insides of a prison, but also for others as well. Kempf has become quite visible in the news media.

He is also changing some significant aspects of prisoner treatment, including – at least this is his plan, as outlined to the Board of Correction on November 12 – eliminating solitary confinement. The department has started a community mentor program for prisoners, to help them transition back to the outside world, which ought to be good news to anyone who realizes that almost all prisoners one day will be back out on the street.

He has responded quickly to outside criticisms as well. In July a federal judge described as “barbaric” the dry cells – cells without running water, without a toilet – used in one of the units. Within a month, Kempf had ordered their use abolished.

Last week he reported progress to legislators on a range of areas, even reporting a welcome decline in prison population, while noting improvement in others that will take some time. “We are trending in the right way.”

In a Boise Weekly article, Kempf was quoted, “We’re behind the times and that’s not a position I want to be in.” If he holds to the trajectory of his first year, Idaho corrections won’t be.

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