Private prisons not a quick fix in other states

To jail or not to jail?

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

Time is of the essence, according to Kenai Penin-sula Borough officials who are exploring the possibility of constructing Alaska's first private prison. But based on their own experience, officials from Washington, Idaho and Arizona urged careful planning.

"Haste makes waste," said Carol Anderson, recently retired county supervisor from Arizona Mohave County. "Act now. Repent at leisure."

Mojave County is in the process of building a medium security private prison along Interstate 40.

"I had more than 400 signatures opposing it," Anderson said. "But a majority vote (of the 3-member board of supervisors) supported it."

Margaret Ann Von Heeder, 11-year deputy secretary for the state of Washington's Department of Corrections whose responsibilities included prison construction, said her state has case law prohibiting contracting out services traditionally performed by state employees. When Washington's crowded prison facilities necessitated the short-term use of a private facility in Colorado, insufficient training of staff turned it into an unacceptable situation.

"We ended up sending people down there," she said. "It was not good."

Across the state line, Idaho Department of Corrections Director Jim Spalding said that similar to Alaska's 800 inmates currently incarcerated in a private facility in Arizona, his state had 750 inmates "spread throughout Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas."

Three years ago, he met with the governor of Idaho and suggested an in-state private prison.

"Our way of thinking at that particular time is that we would encourage a private correctional company to come in and build and operate a private prison where we could place our inmates," the director said. "It would be privately financed and we'd just pay them a per diem rate."

A legislature-authorized feasibility study showed Spalding's idea was "about 15 to 20 percent cheaper construction-wise and normally cheaper for cost-per-day."

The result is what Spalding describes as "one of the better contracts in the United States because we own the prison."

"We went out on the street with a request for proposal to build it with our money and a second RFP to operate it. (The successful bidder) said they'd build it for $49 million and operate it for around $37 a day," he said of the 1,200-bed facility that opened July 1. The facility proposed for the Kenai Peninsula is estimated to cost $80 million in construction.

State monitors maintain constant oversight, Spalding said.

"When I go out and talk about private prisons, I recommend a couple of things: the state stays in control at all times and have legislation that facilitates some kind of control," the Idaho director said.

Still, Von Heeder advised that claims made by private prison enthusiasts be closely evaluated.

"We have lobbyists making broad statements that they could save 15 to 20 percent without even knowing how our system works," Von Heeder said. "In looking at other states that have essentially identical prisons, one run by private enterprise and one run by state, it is very unclear whether it saves money."

Proposed construction costs have to be viewed realistically and in terms of quality, Spalding said.

"Obviously you can come in and build a medium security facility out of concrete, but you can build one out of wood cheaper. Quality has got to be an issue," the director said.

Site selection figured big in the Idaho plans.

"We currently have three institutions and a community work center at the (private prison) location," Spalding said. "We took that out of the whole equation and said (bidders) could consider state-owned land or make a proposal on some other part of the state. Obviously, they couldn't do it cheaper by going somewhere else. They chose to build on our land and forgo a lot of the requirements that they would (face) if they went somewhere else."

Employment opportunities need careful consideration, too, according to Von Heeder.

"You can't just take all locals," Von Heeder said. "You have to bring in people that know how to run a prison."

And increased populations equal demands on existing infrastructure, she said.

"There are tremendous economic benefits, but there are things that you have to take into consideration: adequate utilities, medical facilities, impact on schools, impact on roads," Von Heeder said.

Not all the impacts are positive, Anderson said.

"A concern is camp followers -- family members or loved ones -- that come into the area and are usually on the low income scale and place pressure on local social services to provide basic needs," she said. "And really, what's the return to the community? You can't just look at it and say, 'Oh, there's jobs.' You have to look into the impacts on the future and the ancillary impacts. Water, sewer, all those things need to accommodate the added number of people."

Anderson said there are inherent dangers in relying on a private prison for additional revenue.

"I'd rather have someone manufacturing a product that we could sell outside the county to generate revenue," Anderson said. "A prison doesn't generate new wealth. If you're manufacturing a product, you have an overturn of dollars. But when you release a prisoner, what do you have?"

When faced with conflicting public concerns, Spalding said he listened to the loudest voice.

"We had more flack from putting (prisoners) out of state than building a private prison," he said.

Von Heeder also addressed the moral dilemma posed by private prisons.

"Hiring people for use of force, is that a public responsibility?" she asked. "Then there's an issue of liability, whether or not a public jurisdiction can shed all of the liability through contract. That's a pretty big issue. I think that generally the answer is no."

Understanding the process, Von Heeder said, is very important.

"I don't mean to paint a dismal picture of private organizations, but it's very important that you know what you're doing as far as crafting and monitoring a contract," she said.

And Anderson urged slow, careful planning with an eye toward the future.

"You have to think what all is involved down the line," she said. "That phrase, 'down the line,' is so correct. What's needed here? What's going to be affected there? It's not simple."

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