Private Prisons, Public Doubts

As California's first big private prison goes up, questions surface on profits vs. safety.

At one end of this hardscrabble desert town, workers paint and trowel prefab prison cells in 115-degree heat. At the other, earthmovers level a hillside where the units will be assembled like Tinker Toys in 14 months.

In between, about 8,000 townspeople hem and haw over what could become California's first, large-scale private prison. "I know private prisons are faster to build, cheaper to run, and provide local jobs," says William Devoe, a resident. "But I worry about ... abdicating responsibility to those who are more interested in making money than in rehabilitating prisoners."

He isn't alone. The prison has become the heart of a debate among legislators, prison officials, and watchdog groups from here to Washington about the ethics and success of for-profit prisons.

In the past five years, the number of private prisons has jumped 34 percent. They now house up to 100,000 of America's 1.8 million inmates. But some of the facilities have run into serious trouble, and more are being investigated.

Private juvenile facilities in three states - Colorado, Texas, and South Carolina - have lost their operating licenses after lawsuits regarding overcrowding and poorly trained staff. Underneath the dispute loom prickly legal and moral questions:

* Are private corporations putting profit motives ahead of public interest?

* Will the lure of cheap prison beds drive quality down as more states seek the lowest bidders to house inmates?

* Is it legal to delegate the use of deadly force to the private sector?

"The privatization of prisons is the biggest hot-potato issue in American corrections right now," says Edith Flynn, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who is organizing a national conference on the subject this fall.

The California City example is a perfect case study to watch, say Ms. Flynn and others, because it is a microcosm of the pressures and incentives faced elsewhere. The state with the most criminals, California will run out of prison beds by June 2000. Several bond issues to build more prisons have failed. The first state to enact a "three-strikes-you're-out" law - putting away third-time felons for good - it's had to double the percentage of general funds (now more than $5.5 billion annually) dedicated to prisons at the expense of education and social programs.

"By all accounts our corrections system is broken," says state Sen. Richard Polanco (D) of Los Angeles, chair of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations. He has spent years touring private prisons around the world. Senator Polanco is impressed enough with the record of one corporation, Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), which operates about 77 facilities in several countries, to back its building of California City's facility.

Polanco says accreditation and safety standards are higher than at public facilities, recidivism rates are lower, and operating costs are about 30 percent less.

Although CCA does not yet have a state contract to house prisoners, the corporation is investing $100 million in the California City facility. "If we build it, they will come," says CCA president David Myers.

BUT the prison and others like it are being vehemently opposed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Like powerful unions that have stopped the building of private prisons in many northern states, the CCPOA circulates a list of dangers longer than a policeman's nightstick. Among their objections: Public safety is compromised without state oversight; prison guards cannot claim immunity from lawsuits when prisoners are unduly harmed; staff selection and training are substandard; claims of cost savings and boosts to local economy are not always borne out.

"We call them dungeons for dollars because their allegiance is to stockholders, not to the public," says Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the CCPOA.

He says CCA and others have not delivered on promised local jobs in facilities in Youngstown, Ohio, and allowed sex offenders to escape from Texas facilities. The offenders were caught but dodged prosecution because no laws existed concerning escape from private facilities.

"Private prisons look good up front, but what do you think will happen to quality and costs when pressure from stockholders builds over time?" Mr. Corcoran asks.

Private-prison advocates counter that their facilities will remain less expensive because they are not mired in the same red tape as public facilities and have fewer unions. "Private companies do not have to go through the same expensive bidding processes ... don't have to wait for bond issues to pass, and can operate with economies of scale," says Paul Cromwell, a criminologist at Wichita State University in Kansas.

Regardless of such concerns, the move to privatize prisons will only grow, most experts say. Federal prisons are at 150 percent capacity, while state facilities are pushing about 110 to 115 percent. In areas where industry or agriculture is declining, many rural towns like California City lobby for the prison themselves. "We will get 500 jobs that we sorely need," says Mayor Larry Adams. Plus, the $100-million facility - which stays on the private tax rolls - will provide an estimated $350,000 in tax revenue annually.

"Punishment is now a leading rural growth industry," says Eric Lotke, associate director of the National Criminal Justice Commission. "Prisons have replaced factories as the economic centerpiece of many small towns."

That trend might provide a healthy boost to public facilities as well. "Private prisons will be good for breaking up the monopolies of government-run facilities," says Simon Hakim, co-director of the Privatization Research Center at Temple University in Philadelphia. "They will allow for more flexibility in choices and more competition."

But others say the rise of private prisons stifles debate. "State citizens will be deprived of the bigger debate they ought to be having," says Flynn. "They should be asking, 'Can we put this money elsewhere, such as prevention?' or 'Why are there so many prisoners to begin with?' When you can just keep socking prisoners away quietly, you stop asking those questions."

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