States re­ject of­fer to buy pris­ons

Trend mov­ing away from once-pop­u­lar pri­va­ti­za­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - Business - BY GREG BLUESTEIN

AT­LANTA | The na­tion’s largest pri­vate prison com­pany made an en­tic­ing of­fer to 48 states that went some­thing like this: We will buy your prison now if you agree to keep it mostly full and prom­ise to pay us for run­ning it over the next two decades.

De­spite a need for cash, sev­eral states im­me­di­ately slammed the door on the of­fer, a sign that pri­va­tiz­ing pris­ons might not be as pop­u­lar as it once was.

Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­ica sent let­ters to the prison lead­ers in Jan­uary, say­ing it had a pot of $250 mil­lion to buy fa­cil­i­ties as part of an in­vest­ment. The com­pany is try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the land­mark deal it made with Ohio in the fall by pur­chas­ing a fa­cil­ity, the first state prison in the na­tion to be sold to a pri­vate firm.

Prison de­part­ments in Cal­i­for­nia, Texas and Ge­or­gia all dis­missed the idea. Florida’s prison sys­tem said it doesn’t have the au­thor­ity to make that kind of decision and of­fi­cials in CCA’S home state of Ten­nessee said they aren’t re­view­ing the pro­posal. The states re­fused to say ex­actly why they were re­ject­ing the of­fer.

“Know­ing the state gov­ern­ment, it has to have some­thing to do with the po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal back­lash,” said Jeanne St­inch­comb, a crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­fes­sor at Florida At­lantic Univer­sity who has writ­ten two books on the cor­rec­tions in­dus­try. “Pri­va­ti­za­tion has reaped some neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity, so I can only as­sume that de­spite the pos­si­ble ben­e­fits, there would be a price to pay for sup­port­ing it.”

Bruce Bay­ley, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nal jus­tice at We­ber State Univer­sity in Utah, said he hoped some­thing other than pol­i­tics drove the states’ de­ci­sions.

“It’s al­ways hard for politi­cians to turn down the money,” Mr. Bay­ley said. “On the flip­side, though, it speaks well to the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of cor­rec­tions de­part­ments of these states who don’t want to sell out to com­pa­nies just to add some money to their bank ac­counts.”

Crit­ics of pri­vate pris­ons called the of­fer a backdoor way to de­lay the sen­tenc­ing re­form move­ments that have sprung up in many states look­ing to cut prison bud­gets. Law­mak­ers in many con­ser­va­tive states that once ea­gerly passed tough-on-crime laws are now em­brac­ing al­ter­na­tive sen­tences for low-level of­fend­ers who would oth­er­wise be locked up.

CCA said sell­ing a prison to a pri­vate firm doesn’t block states from pur­su­ing sen­tenc­ing re­form. The com­pany also said it was still too early to say whether any state would take them up on the bid.

“It was an out­reach let­ter mak­ing them aware of these of­fers, it’s yet an­other tool in the tool­box,” said com­pany spokesman Steve Owen. “We can de­sign and build and own fa­cil­i­ties from scratch or man­age gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties, but this is a third busi­ness model.”

CCA said the of­fer was in­spired by the $72.7 mil­lion sale of Lake Erie Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion in Ohio. CCA and its main com­peti­tors, which have said they don’t plan to make a sim­i­lar of­fer, typ­i­cally build their own pris­ons or man­age state-owned lock­ups.

“El­i­gi­ble fa­cil­i­ties must have at least 1,000 beds, must be less than 25 years old and in good con­di­tion, and have to main­tain at least a 90 per­cent oc­cu­pancy rate.

The pri­vate prison in­dus­try boomed in the late 1980s and 1990s as states sought cheaper ways to jail peo­ple and vot­ers be­gan re­sist­ing build­ing more pris­ons. But ef­forts to pri­va­tize pris­ons have be­come highly-charged po­lit­i­cal de­bates in many states, partly be­cause a sale of­ten re­quires leg­isla­tive ap­proval by the gov­er­nor.

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