States pull prisoners back home

Prison 'outsourcing' is linked to concerns about riots, recidivism, and family hardship.

Despite tight budgets, some US states are rethinking one of their money-saving strategies of recent years: "outsourcing" a portion of their inmate populations to facilities in other states.

Building and staffing prisons costs money, vying with healthcare and schools for scarce state resources. But in some capitals, policymakers are deciding that exporting prisoners may hurt more than it helps.

Concerns range from riots - as gangs battle rivals from other states - to higher recidivism rates and hardship on families who must travel farther to see loved ones. Beyond that, states must weigh the costs of building new prisons against the jobs that can be created in struggling locales.

The upshot: Although some states are still shipping prisoners beyond their borders, some are beginning to pull them home:

• Wyoming has plans to bring all 550 of its displaced prisoners back by 2007.

• Arizona, which has shipped more than 2,100 prisoners to private facilities out of state, is withdrawing 400 prisoners from an Oklahoma prison after a May riot there injured dozens.

• Hawaii's legislature is scrambling to find land for housing some 1,000 prisoners currently placed in mainland facilities.

• Wisconsin, which once led the nation in the number of inmates placed beyond state borders, hopes to have all but 500 of its prisoners back by year end. That's down from 4,400 who were spread across Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Mississippi just four years ago.

• In Connecticut, recent debate over a proposal to send 2,500 prisoners out of state nearly ground budget negotiations to a halt. Gov. Jodi Rell resolved the controversy by announcing plans to return 400 inmates from Virginia state prisons to Connecticut. Saying the change "makes good policy and good fiscal sense," she also ruled out further outsourcing.

The trend of outsourcing has affects in states on both the sending and receiving end. In Colorado, which anticipates a 25.6 increase in its prison population in the next five years, state-run facilities are full, and extra inmates sent to private prisons mix with prisoners from all over the West - occasionally with riots resulting.

Each state cites its own blend of reasons for pulling inmates home.

Mismanagement of gang populations at privately run, out-of-state facilities has helped spur change in Wyoming and Arizona. Two Connecticut inmates died while in Virginia custody, causing Connecticut to pay out more than $2 million in damages to the inmates' families.

Most states express a need for better drug treatment and job training than private prisons could offer. Others note the hardship placed on inmates' families who struggle to pay for cross-country bus tickets and collect calls just to keep in contact.

"We feel that it's in the best interest of our inmates [to bring them back in state]," said Melinda Brazzale, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. "This way we can work with them all through the system so that when they get out, they stay out."

Some states also cite a crisis of confidence in the private prison system, where facilities were hastily built with less emphasis on rehabilitation, said Chase Riveland, a prison consultant and former secretary of corrections for Washington and Colorado. He also sees politics at play in the decision to bring prisoners home.

"You would find very few corrections officials who would admit that they like [sending prisoners out of state]," Riveland said. "Take Wisconsin, a strong union state. When you have 5,000 inmates out of state - the equivalent of four or five prison systems - that's a lot of jobs lost."

States are also just beginning to realize other economic effects of out-of-state incarceration, said Walter Dickey, a University of Wisconsin law professor and former state secretary of the Department of Corrections. Mr. Dickey notes that most private facilities can manage populations less expensively because they only take the inmates without mental or behavioral issues. "In a sense, it makes for a concentration of the tougher inmates in your own institutions when you've sent off the easier-to-manage, healthier people," he says.

One result, he says , is a skyrocketing recidivism rate. But even as these states spend hundreds of millions of dollars to repatriate inmates in new facilities, private prison companies say the national trend still is toward outsourcing.

"This is not a trend that's going away any time soon," said Steve Owen, director of marketing for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which contracts with 10 states and houses 5,000 inmates.

Vermont has contracted with CCA to place inmates in facilities as far afield as Kentucky. New Hampshire may outsource 1,000 prisoners. But experts note that states can bring prisoners home and still turn to the private prison system.

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