Tepid references follow private prison operator

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

Watchful eyes across the United States are following the Kenai Peninsula Borough's move into the world of private prisons. As contract negotiations with Cornell Corrections and its three team members near completion, other areas report mixed levels of satisfaction in their dealings with the lead company.

Dennis Cunningham, administrator of Oklahoma Department of Corrections private prison unit, said use of an in-state private prison permitted the return of inmates previously sent to Texas. Oklahoma contracts with Cornell to operate Great Plains Correc-tional Facility, a medium-security prison in Hinton.

"Those people with relationships with the offenders are the ones really inconvenienced by the distance," Cunningham said. "And it benefited (the state) a lot, because if you're trying to oversee things long range, there's some disadvantage."

Oversight was important to Georgia's Department of Correc-tions, according to Scott Stallings, public affairs director.

"(Georgia has) a contract that specifies how the prison is to be run and we expect them to run it that way," said Stallings, referring to Cornell's operation of D. Ray James Prison, a 1,500-bed medium-security facility in Folkston. "We're there 24 hours a day. We hold to a very high standard, and it is operated in a manner consistent to that standard."

Samuel Montoya, manager for the county of Santa Fe, N.M., said a well-crafted contract is crucial. In 1997, the county entered into a three-year contract with Cornell to operate a 700-bed maximum-security facility. That contract is currently being renegotiated. Cornell is one of three bidders.

"It's really based on an ability to negotiate and clarify what it is you're looking for and how much you're going to get for what you pay," he said. "So it's important to have good negotiating skills and a good written instrument that provides what you need."

Montoya said liability is also a major consideration.

"Obviously, you can never be totally isolated or insulated from a lawsuit. But when you have a contract manager or contract corporation running your facility, they're responsible for all the operations," he said.

Well-trained staff narrow the liability gap. In Oklahoma, Cornell is required to train personnel to minimum state standards.

"(That) would be something we would change if we had the opportunity," Cunningham said. "But Cornell is compliant with the law and provides more than the minimum, but not to the full extent of what the state provides."

Georgia, however, has maintained control of training.

"We train their correctional officers," Stallings said. "They have to meet the same specifications and standards as do state prison correctional officers."

Ensuring security is also a priority. Although two escapes at Oklahoma's Great Plains Facility did not result in harm to nearby residents, they did result in "fencing around the building to prevent that from happening again," said Cunningham.

Benjie Montana, undersheriff for the county of Santa Fe, N.M., said there have been "walk-aways" from work-release programs, but no escapes have occurred at the Cornell-run facility during the three-year contract.

Bob White, attorney for the city of Albuquerque, N.M., said his city is currently investigating an incident involving the escape of a federal prisoner while being transported by Cornell. White is exploring how the city can recover $76,000 it spent to apprehend the prisoner.

Bev Lennan, deputy chief of police for the city of Santa Fe, confirmed reports that overcharging by Cornell in 1999 has required close scrutiny of the company's billings.

"We do have one employee who at that time spent the majority of her work time attempting to reconcile the billing," Lennan wrote in an e-mail. However, a new billing system improved the situation. "We do continue to experience (billing) charges that are contested; however a satisfactory process has been implemented to allow us to address these discrepancies."

Stallings said Cornell's daily per prisoner rate has resulted in savings for Georgia.

With regard to Cornell's pay scale, Oklahoma's Cunningham said it mirrors state wages, but "it could be higher." He also said the state provides more benefits.

Farther east, the state of Pennsylvania chose not to partner with Cornell.

"What Cornell wanted to do was come into Pennsylvania and build a prison and then look for inmates to fill it. So they would go and get inmates from another state to populate the prison," said Jeffrey A. Beard, head of the state's corrections. "But there were some questions about legality under Pennsylvania law."

According to Beard, at question were issues of liability and the ability of a contractor to use deadly force in apprehending escaped inmates. Although several counties work with private providers, Pennsylvania has maintained its position of caution.

"They should probably be careful," Beard said of Alaska's move toward privatization. "I'm not going to tell Alaska how to operate, but they should be very cautious of what the laws say regarding private prisons. Who's going to provide oversight? Who's going to monitor what they do? Oversight is the key to making sure things work correctly."

Beard cautioned that different motivations could put the state and Cornell at odds.

"Private providers are in the business to make money," he said. "They're not doing it out of the goodness of their heart."

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