Private firms enter the business of operating government prisons

Privately run correctional institutions may be an idea whose time has come. Public officials - caught between overcrowded prisons and taxpayer resistance to new or larger facilities to house an expanding inmate population - are considering whether to entrust the custody of some convicts to outside agencies.

At least a dozen private corrections or detention centers are in operation or are being planned under contracts with federal, state, and local governments.

''Prisons-for-profit'' - and their potential for lessening the inmate and financial squeeze on government-operated jails and penal institutions - were explored here at last week's National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL , which includes lawmakers from across the United States, neither endorsed nor opposed the idea.

While the concept of private enterprise in halfway houses is generally accepted, the use of privately run centers for prisoners is another matter, says Mary Fairchild of NCSL. Except for a small correctional center for ''hard core'' juvenile offenders in eastern Pennsylvania, in operation since 1975, the shift toward private-sector takeover has come within the past two years, she notes.

Boosters of the ''prison for profit'' approach, like Travis Snellings, vice-president of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), say private enterprise can build and run secure incarceration facilities ''at less cost than government.''

''It is also possible to get a needed new facility built faster than could a public agency,'' he asserts. He cites a 350-bed institution for illegal aliens in Houston, which the CCA operates for the federal government. ''We broke ground last November and it was opened five months later in April,'' Mr. Snellings says.

Snellings, whose company currently is discussing building or operating prisons with several state and local governments, says privately run prisons can be operated at ''up to 30 percent less than public correctional institutions of similar type and size.''

He and others in the correctional-institution business say they can care for prisoners just as well, if not better, than public-run prisons. In the process, they say, their investors make money.

Governments that contract for outside custody of convicts pay the company a daily rate per prisoner. The CCA, based in Nashville, is one of several private-enterprise operations in the field.

Within the past 18 months at least two states - New Mexico and Texas - have amended their laws to permit contracting with private firms for running correctional facilities, including local jails. Similar legislation is under way elsewhere.

In some instances, penal codes must be changed. But in most cases, public officials already have the authority to turn over operations of corrections facilities to private enterprise, Snellings says.

Critics of privately run prisons question whether companies can do a good job while returning a profit to investors. Public-employee unions are cool to the idea, which could transfer custody of prisoners to nonunion, lower-paid, and perhaps undertrained personnel, cautions Kenneth Schoen, a former corrections commissioner in Minnesota and now director of Criminal Justice at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York.

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