This article has also been published by the Concord Monitor, Nashua Telegraph, Keene Sentinel, and New Hampshire Episcopal News. 

While political attention is focused on the end of a contentious legislative session and the beginning of a busy election season, a momentous decision is being considered behind closed doors in the Department of Administrative Services.  There, Administrative Services and Department of Corrections staff are reviewing piles of documents from four corporations interested in taking over the state’s prison system and running it for profit.  If a contract with one of the private firms emerges in late summer or early fall, only then will policy-makers and citizens get to know the details of a deal with profound implications for public safety, the state budget, job quality, and the constitutional obligation to support the rehabilitation of offenders.

The private prison experiment in other states has gone poorly.  For example, a detailed report released by the American Friends Service Committee in February on Arizona’s experience revealed “widespread and persistent problems in private facilities around safety, lack of accountability, and cost.” 

AFSC reviewed state data showing that private prisons under contract with the state cost more than equivalent units operated by the state Department of Corrections, and that all private prisons for which security assessment data was available had serious security flaws. “While no prison can be entirely safe or problem-free, private prisons demonstrate clear, long-standing patterns of prisoner unrest including riots, staffing and management issues, escapes, and other serious safety problems,” said Caroline Isaacs, the report’s author.   

All three of the private firms running prisons in Arizona have submitted bids for the opportunity to do the same here. One firm, MTC, operated the private prison in Kingman Arizona from which three people escaped in 2010, kidnapping and murdering two campers and burning their bodies in their trailer. A review showed that tower lights were burned out, the perimeter was unwatched, and the alarm sounded so many false alarms nobody listened to it.   

Elaine Rizzo, a Professor of Criminal Justice at Saint Anselm College, reviewed the record of prison privatization for the Citizens Advisory Board of the NH State Prison for Women.  Her paper, co-authored with Margaret Hayes of Regis College and released at the end of January, reviewed issues of cost, public safety, and correctional policy and reached a stark conclusion:

“Of greatest concern is the indisputable fact that private prisons exist to make a profit.  It is in their economic interests to reduce costs by maintaining full facilities, reducing staff wages and benefits, reducing institutional expenses associated with safety and sanitation, and reducing critical care services and programming. These cost-saving measures come at the expense of institutional and public safety, and hold the potential for negative publicity and more costly lawsuits.” 

Official financial documents from the private prison companies openly acknowledge that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration at a time when policy makers are looking for ways to lower costs and reduce recidivism.

Despite growing evidence of problems in other states -- riots, escapes, high levels of staff turnover -- the prison companies are serious about moving into New Hampshire.   The Corrections Corporation of America, the industry leader, has approached local officials in Lancaster and Hinsdale about real estate it thinks would be suitable for a large, new prison.  Management and Training Corporation, another bidder in the state process, has expressed interest in property on Hackett Hill Road in Manchester.  The GEO Group and LaSalle/Hunt, the other two bidders, may be scouting for real estate as well.   CCA, GEO, and MTC have hired local lobbyists to represent their interests.

Oddly, a decision to award a lucrative contract to a private prison operator could be made by the Governor and Executive Council without any legislation directing them to do so and without much public discussion of whether privatization is in the state’s interest.  That should not be allowed to happen.

The public deserves a full and open airing of the privatization issue, not a rush job slipped through the Executive Council while the eyes of voters and lawmakers are focused on other matters.   

Arnie Alpert is AFSC's New Hampshire Program Coordinator.

June 25, 2012

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