Features

Who Holds the Keys?

The private prison industry eyes Idaho

by

2 comments
Profit or protection. Public or private. Where do you draw the line between public safety and private industry?

There's little to no distinction in the world of private prisons, a place where capitalism meets public service. It's an industry based on keeping people locked up, and doing it as efficiently as possible.

It's also an industry that generates lots of controversy. While some argue that privately owned and operated prisons allow government agencies to deal with increasingly overcrowded prison systems and dwindling budgets, others say that introducing the element of profit into the management of incarcerated people leads to corruption, mismanagement and mistreatment of prisoners.

"You shouldn't introduce a profit margin and a profit motive into a prison," said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "The industry as a whole shouldn't exist."

But it's an industry that may be expanding into Idaho if some state leaders get their way.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has asked lawmakers to begin drafting legislation that would allow privately owned and operated prisons to go to work in Idaho.

There are currently no private facilities in the state, although the Idaho Correctional Center in Kuna is managed by the Correction Corporation of America of Tennessee. CCA is the largest private prison business in the country, ranking just behind the federal prison system. The company owns 41 prisons nationwide, and manages another 24 facilities in 19 states and Washington, D.C., for a combined total of roughly 75,000 beds.

To pave the way for their Idaho entry, a work group made up of lawmakers, Idaho Department of Corrections officials and industry representatives are in the early stages of drafting legislation that will be introduced in the next legislative session.

"[It would] set the stage for a private firm to come into the state of Idaho and create a facility that the firm would own and operate," said Brent Reinke, director of the Idaho Department of Corrections.

"Truly, Gov. Otter is very insistent in this area and has been very, very outspoken and there's no doubt at all the way he wants to proceed," Reinke said.

"We have a critical need right now to do something immediately to address the [prison] population crisis that we're seeing," said Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary. "When you're talking about a private prison vs. a state-run one, building one, you're talking about up to four years on the state-run side vs. 18 to 24 months. The private side is going to be a more immediate impact."

Hanian said Otter's priority was to get prisoners now housed in out-of-state facilities back in the state. Until Idaho has more room, Hanian said, "our hands are tied on that."

Otter has vowed that any agreement reached with a private company would include stipulations that the state has a first right of refusal on any beds, and could bump any out-of-state inmates if the space is needed.

It's not so cut and dried for opponents of the industry, though.

"The bottom line for the private prison industry is to make a profit," said Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Institute, a Florida-based group that opposes the private prison industry. "They give you a snow job about rules and training. They have to provide a profit, and they actually turn quite a profit for quite a few years.

"They do a very good P.R. job," he said.

A key part of that public relations campaign is to make inroads with politicians in states targeted by the industry as likely locations for expansion.

Opponents of private prisons are full of stories of corrupt officials and lobbyists serving as advisers for the state, including a college professor in Florida who served as a state adviser on the private prison industry while that industry funded his professional research. There's also Manny Aragon, former president of the New Mexico Senate, who was indicted by a jury in April for an alleged kickback scheme.

"There's going to be more of it when it's [in Idaho]," said Kopczynski. "They're not stupid. Most of these folks [private corrections company leaders] come out of government anyways."

The industry has already made its first foray into the wallets of Idaho politicians.

According to campaign finance reports filed with the state, both CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators, donated $5,000 to Otter's 2006 campaign for governor.

But Hanian said there is no impropriety in Otter's interest in private prisons.

"There is no quid pro quo when it comes to any campaign contribution the governor has received and the establishment of state policy. None," Hanian said. "He bases every decision solely on its merits."

Reinke said he doesn't feel there's any undue influence within the state government. "It's very important that we have the system in place so that it is competitive, and everything is done in the light of day. That's a challenge we're faced with," he said.

The Texas Connection

Idaho has already had experience with the industry.

Some 750 of Idaho's roughly 7,300 inmates are housed in private prisons in Texas and Oklahoma, and plans call for another 240 to be moved by the end of the year, according to Reinke. Another 500 are being housed in county facilities.

"Our needs are very significant," Reinke said.

Idaho's prison population has been growing by roughly 6.5 percent annually, and Reinke estimates it will take an additional 2,000 to 3,000 beds to meet the state's short-term needs.

"What I'm concerned with right now is bed capacity," Reinke said. "This is not a new need."

If the prison population continues to increase at the same rate, Reinke said the state will need several new facilities within the next 10 years.

"We need to do what we can to meet the need of Idahoans within the state of Idaho," he said. "The longer we wait on this, the longer the inmates are going to be out of state."

Currently, Idaho has eight prisons, four community work centers and 22 probation and parole district satellite offices. The state corrections agency employs roughly 1,500 people.

While moving inmates to out-of-state facilities with extra room seems to offer some relief for Idaho prison managers, the practice hasn't been without its problems.

Idaho's troubles with private prisons began when they shipped 302 prisoners to a private prison in Minnesota in October 2005. After space ran out at the Minnesota prison in August 2006, the Idaho inmates were sent to two facilities in Texas, one of which was the Dickens County Correctional Facility in Spur, Texas, a private prison owned by GEO Group. In March, according to news reports, Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne committed suicide. In letters to family, he placed the blame for his depression on the unsanitary conditions at the prison and the poor treatment by staff.

While Idaho officials plan to move the 56 inmates remaining at the Dickens County facility by the end of the year, they will be transferred to another Texas facility owned by the same company.

It's just the latest of the state's problems stemming from housing prisoners out of state—a list that includes riots and escapes at a private prison in Louisiana in 1997.

Those who oppose private prisons say these sort of problems are indicative of the industry as a whole.

"Why does your governor think having a private prison in Idaho is going to be any different than the mess they had in Texas?" Kopczynski said.

Among his and Donner's chief concerns is the hiring of untrained correctional officers, who they say are paid wages below that of their public sector counterparts. This, coupled with poor training, leads to prisoner abuses, poor conditions, high employee turnover and an unwillingness to respond in the face of a dangerous situation, they believe.

"The problems we have had in Colorado are around some of the tactics of private prisons use to make money: smaller staff, fewer programs, lower pay," said Donner. "If you want a riot, that's a great strategy."

"There's no institutional knowledge," said Kopczynski. "You don't know your elbow from a hole in the ground when it comes to correctional work."

Industry representatives vehemently disagree.

"That's completely baseless," said Steven Owen, director of marketing for CCA. "It's absolutely, categorically false."

Owen argues that all employees of CCA meet the training standards of the American Correctional Association, the largest correctional trade association in the world, and because of contractual agreements with the states they serve, must have as much training as correctional officers in public facilities.

When it comes to wages, Owen said it's a philosophical difference.

"Generally, in a state correctional system, it's a one-size-fits-all starting salary for a correctional officer," he said. "CCA prices salary and wages by the facility. We compete with the labor pool in the area around the facility.

"Critics like to focus in on wages," Owen said. "We are competitive in the locations where we operate."

He added that wages for mid-management positions are typically much higher than in the public sector.

A 2003 report published by Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First and Prison Privatization Report International—both corporate watchdog groups—stated that CCA has managed to stem the tide of negative publicity. But the report didn't have a favorable overview of the company.

"CCA has built a reputation marred by numerous instances of scandal, mismanagement, alleged mistreatment of prisoners and its own employees, attempted manipulation of public policy and a proliferation of questionable research. Its record is a clear example of how the pursuit of profit stands in the way of carrying out a core public function such as corrections. CCA has succeeded in staying in business for two decades, but it has not succeeded in demonstrating that prison privatization makes sense," the report reads.

From CCA's perspective though, the advantages are clear and numerous.

"We try to operate as well as, or better than, our public counterparts," Owen said. "We don't have some of the bureaucracy that can sometimes get in the way of government processes."

It's the company's size that Owen said gives it an advantage, not only with purchasing power for goods, but with the ability to get a new facility up and running quickly.

"It takes three to five years for the state to have to go through the legislative process," Owen said. "We can bring a new facility on line in 12 to 18 months."

He said a privately owned prison also saves taxpayers the cost of the capital investment. Typically, the states pay CCA on a per-prisoner, per-day basis depending on the level of programs required by the state contract, as well as the level of security needed.

"It's the capacity that we bring on line that relieves overcrowded systems," he said. "It helps existing systems to become safer and more efficient."

Since the company typically hires much of its workforce from the local community, Owen said there's a strong economic impact.

"We want to do business in places where we're wanted," he said.

Apparently, Idaho ranks among those places. Owen said CCA has had a good partnership with the state since the Idaho Correctional Center opened in 2000. He said if the law should change, the company would be interested in building a facility in the state.

Problems Behind the Bars

One of the biggest issues for critics of the private prison system is the practice of moving prisoners out of state.

For many, separating inmates from their families and familiar environments only leads to more problems and creates an unending cycle of prisoners returning to jail.

"They're doomed to re-offend," said Frank Smith, national field coordinator for the Private Corrections Institute. "They're estranged from their families and support systems. It's a futile effort. It's life on the installment plan. It drains tax money, and they're never rehabilitated."

If prisoners from other states are involved in conflicts, there are jurisdictional issues, Donner said.

"If prisoners from other states have problems, it's in your jurisdiction," she said. "Now they have to be under your cost."

Owen said CCA does extensive work assimilating prisoners brought from out of state. Including sending staff to their home state to learn about the habits and cultural practices of the inmates.

"It's worked well for us," he said.

But that doesn't always seem to be enough. In 2004, one of the largest prison riots in recent Colorado history took place at the Crowley County Correctional Facility, a prison owned by CCA.

Apparently, the incident was touched off by tensions between a group of inmates from Washington state and prison staff. A general feeling of unrest spread through the prison, and more than 1,000 inmates rioted. In the end, 13 prisoners were injured.

Following the incident, a state investigation placed the blame on staff shortages and inexperience. Additionally, the final report stated that the prison's emergency plan was not effective and that basic security measures weren't followed. CCA also took flak because the company's incident commander refused an order from state officials to use gas to quell the riot, until he had approval from the parent company.

CCA was recently fined by the state of Colorado for continued understaffing. Fines totaled $23,000 for leaving 157 shifts unfilled at the Crowley facility, $103,743 for 701 unfilled shifts at the Kit Carson Correctional Center and $2,651 for 18 shifts at the Bent County Correctional Facility.

"This is a broader issue," Owen said. "It is a reality in both public and private facilities around this country that disturbances do occur. It's just an unfortunate reality."

Owen said the company is proud of its security record. The proof, he said, is in the amount of repeat business.

"[We've had a] 95 percent contract renewal rate in our 25-year history," he said. "For all critics to be right about some of the things they lob out there, means that all three federal agencies that contract for facilities would all collectively have to be wrong about us.

"It doesn't make any sense," Owen said. "The fact is that we do have a very good reputation and customers trust us.

"There's a lot of emotional rhetoric that is out there," he said. "You can't just look at isolated incidents."

Owen says the key to success is the oversight by states contracting with CCA.

"We're one of the most transparent industries out there," he said. Several state and federal agencies routinely monitor the health and welfare of inmates, he added.

"At the end of the day, you have to remember the employees that work in these facilities are citizens in these communities as well," he said. "They have as much vested interest in making sure the facility is safe and secure."

But the issue of oversight is exactly what critics of the private system say is lacking.

"The biggest issue is oversight, or lack of oversight," Kopczynski said. "Public prisons have problems, but not as much as private."

Smith, who began studying private prisons in Alaska 11 years ago, said he's seen the same trend across the industry.

"What I see is almost 100 percent failure to monitor," he said.

Smith said that's exactly what happened in Texas earlier this year, when Idaho inmates found themselves in unacceptable conditions.

"Idaho is claiming they had no idea," he said. "That's B.S. They knew exactly what was going on. What they didn't know was what they didn't want to know."

Reinke admits that monitoring was a large factor in what happened in Texas. "It plays into the problems from out of state," he said.

Reinke said the department has recently created a position that is basically a virtual prison warden in a new Contract Operations division. The virtual warden is responsible for monitoring all of the inmates who are sent out of state and will continue to do so as they are brought back to Idaho.

Reinke said opening a private, for-profit facility in the state has some distinct issues.

"We need to monitor it very closely," he said. "When we sit down and look at a facility of this nature, it comes down to management and how we monitor it. It's important that the staff and facility goes through the same amount of training as state employees do until it acts, walks and talks like an Idaho facility.

"We're not going to wait for an incident," Reinke said. "We're going to be proactive in that area."

Why Idaho Wants Them

For Reinke, it comes down to bringing Idaho prisoners back to the state that locked them up in the first place.

"We can do a better job monitoring in-state than out of state," he said. "We would like to keep Idaho inmates in Idaho. We would like to have Idaho jobs here if we're going to be paying."

Reinke said the state would also have to approve any inmate brought from out of state as part of any contract agreement with a private operator.

If a private prison is built in Idaho, Reinke said he expects the state would pay between $40 and $50 per prisoner per day, a price comparable to what is currently being paid for prisoners being housed out of state.

Instead of planning for even more prison facilities in Idaho, Reinke said he would prefer to focus on stemming the tide of future inmates before they ever become part of the prison system.

"We're looking at what we can do upstream to slow the growth," he said. "We have to deal with the growth, and why they're coming in the first place."

The state's growing prison population is not only a result of a growing overall population, but with increased substance abuse problems, Reinke said. By creating more programs within the state to provide services for substance abuse and even mental illness, officials can better deal with the issue of overcrowded prisons.

Reinke said Idaho is working with Boise State to look at what would be the most effective methods for addressing the issues. The first part of Boise State's report is due out in late November.

The private corrections industry critics say Idaho will face the same problems other states have if they allow the businesses to enter into the Gem State. It's a scenario they've seen played out again and again.

"If you think private companies can do better, you should privatize the legislature," Kopczynski said. "There are certain things that government should be doing."

"This is not a no-brainer," Donner said. "People have to really look at the consequences."

But Reinke said no one is going into this blindly.

"I'm sure there are strengths and weaknesses and unforeseen challenges," he said. "We'll apply our own experiences."

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Note: Comments are limited to 200 words.