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Old 12-29-2003, 02:31 PM
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Default Future of State's Private Prisons Remains Murky

Future of State's Private Prisons Remains Murky
Critics say the facilities have outlived their usefulness. Companies fight for survival and a bigger piece of the $5-billion-a-year industry.
By Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writer

December 29, 2003

SACRAMENTO — When the experiment began in the 1980s, it promised to reshape the way America housed its prisoners. The concept was simple: Shift some inmates into the hands of private industry.

Critics argued that the sensitive job of imprisonment should not be shared with for-profit companies. But advocates promised lower costs, and states — faced with swelling inmate populations — needed beds, fast.

Texas, Florida and the federal government signed on with gusto. In California, however, the growth of private lockups has been stifled by resistance from the powerful prison guards union.

Now comes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican said to favor privatization. With his election, private prison operators found hope of expanding their reach in the state's $5-billion-a-year penal system — the largest in the nation.

So far, the prospects look bleak. Of the state's 49 prisons and community correctional facilities, only nine are private, each of them a minimum security unit. And three of them will close by month's end, their contracts terminated by former Gov. Gray Davis. Their demise will cut the number of California convicts in private cells to 2,457 — a tiny fraction of the total inmate count of 160,000.

Operators of the three facilities — in Eagle Mountain in Riverside County and Bakersfield and McFarland in Kern County — have spent the waning days of December in a flurry of negotiations with the new administration, hoping to win reprieves. Eagle Mountain residents even sent a personal plea for the prison — futilely, it now seems — to Schwarzenegger, who worked there a decade ago while filming "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

"I understand we are small potatoes in the California state budget," said Al Murphy, vice president of corrections for Management & Training Corp., the Utah firm that runs the 438-bed Eagle Mountain prison. Had Schwarzenegger had more time, Murphy said, the firm believes he "would have recognized the value privatized corrections can have in this state."

Officials at the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees corrections, confirmed that the three prisons would close as scheduled. What the future holds for the six other private lockups, they said, is unclear.

"These facilities were mostly opened at a time when we had severe overcrowding," said Tip Kindel, assistant secretary of the agency. "Some of those needs they've served just aren't there anymore."

The private prisons' fight for survival has been complicated by two recent riots. The first, at Eagle Mountain on Oct. 25, raged for 90 minutes and left two inmates dead. The second, at a Cornell Cos. Inc. prison in Baker on Dec. 2, sent four inmates to a hospital, one with multiple stab wounds.

The melees were highly unusual for California's private lockups, which have received excellent ratings from auditors in safety and other aspects of their operations. In fact, the deaths at Eagle Mountain were the first at a private facility in this state. In contrast, nine inmates were killed in California's government-run prisons in 2002 and 13 the year before.

Still, the riots cast a shadow over the facilities, with some inmate advocates raising questions about security, guard training and other policies.

Corrections officials, meanwhile, said the riots had grown to a serious scale in part because officers at private lockups do not carry weapons, unlike those at state-run prisons. Company officials respond that their contracts forbid their guards to use weapons — even pepper spray — unlike guards at private prisons in some other states.

They also said the brawls had been triggered by unusual circumstances, for which they blamed the Department of Corrections.

In the case of Eagle Mountain, operators said an unusual turnover of 50% of the inmate population ordered by the department in the weeks preceding the melee had created an unstable atmosphere and rising tensions.

At Baker, officials said, a known jailhouse snitch had been transferred to the prison by the department without warning, sparking the riot. Typically, they said, such an inmate would be housed in protective custody at a state-run prison, not sent to a minimum-security private facility.

A Corrections Department spokeswoman acknowledged the turnover at Eagle Mountain, but said it was a standard part of the prison's deactivation and had not contributed to the riot. The Baker brawl, she said, was still under investigation.

The riots are only the latest flashpoint in an ongoing legal, fiscal and ethical debate over the role of private companies in the incarceration world. As critics see it, trouble is inevitable when the deprivation of someone's liberty is placed in the private sector's hands.

"The motivation of a for-profit company is very different from the government's motivation, which is supposed to be public safety and rehabilitation," said Cara Gotch, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "A company has obligations to its stockholders, which often leads to a desire to cut corners and can mean unconstitutional conditions for inmates."

Despite such reservations, privatization has steadily expanded its reach in corrections. For decades, entrepreneurs have supplied states and counties with a multitude of services, ranging from running work-furlough programs to operating halfway houses for parolees. In the 1980s, that role expanded as former prison wardens, social workers and others moved into the business of running entire prisons.

The appeal of such ventures was obvious — particularly in states with booming inmate populations. Private companies did not have to wait for voters' approval of bonds to build their facilities, so they could bring cells on line faster. And, largely by paying lower wages, many firms could offer states a cheaper per-inmate incarceration rate.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service — now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — was one of the first government entities to contract with private firms, hiring them to provide short-term detention of suspected illegal immigrants.

Since that beginning, most states have tried private incarceration in some form or another. Proportionally, New Mexico has the most private beds of any state — with nearly half of its convicts housed by for-profit companies, the ACLU's Gotch said. Texas and Florida also have been leaders in the use of private prisons, and in New Hampshire, the governor recently expressed interest in privatizing the entire prison system.

In California, the first group of private facilities — Eagle Mountain among them — opened in 1988, a time when the inmate population was mushrooming. With state-run prisons bulging, inmates had begun challenging the conditions of their confinement and judges were issuing orders that threatened to lead to widespread releases unless crowding was eased.

"The hallways were filled with double bunks and the inmates used buckets to go to the bathroom," recalled Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency at the time.

"We were just desperate for space," Brown added. "Building new prisons was one answer, but that took too long. So the privates became part of the mix."

Privatization appealed to the Republican governor at that time, George Deukmejian, as well as to his GOP successor, Pete Wilson. But from the start, the private facilities were bitterly opposed by the labor union representing prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

The union fought privatization in part because it does not represent guards at the company-run facilities. But Brown, now a lobbyist for the union, said its opposition goes beyond that: "Government's job is 100% to protect the public. With the privates, the job is to make money."

Though California's private prisons have won high marks from state officials and independent auditors, some private lockups in other states have been dogged by violence, mismanagement and escapes.

Over the years, the union has used such horror stories to help sway California legislators against any effort to expand private prisons, which have been limited in the state to housing small numbers of low-security inmates. The union has distributed news clippings of private prison problems elsewhere in the country, as well as a CBS television "60 Minutes" segment on troubles at a Corrections Corp. of America lockup in Ohio.

Davis was sympathetic to the union arguments. Two years ago, he proposed closing five of the nine private prisons, saying that he opposed the concept of privatization in corrections and that the tumbling population of low-security inmates made them no longer necessary.

Defenders of private facilities cried foul, suggesting that Davis had been motivated by politics. The prison guards union, they pointed out, was one of Davis' biggest campaign contributors — having spent $2.3 million to get him elected in 1998. In 2002, a few weeks after Davis proposed closing the five private prisons, the union gave him $250,000.

A vigorous campaign succeeded in saving two of the prisons: the one in Baker and a highly praised women's facility in Live Oak, north of Sacramento, both run by Houston-based Cornell Cos. Inc.

But a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the other three were no longer needed because of a dip in the type of low-security inmates they house. Moreover, expected changes in the parole system may cut that population even more, funneling parole violators into community treatment centers rather than back to prison.

"We're hoping to shave another 15,000 off our population eventually, so the need for these minimum custody beds just won't be there," spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

Private prison operators say they are aware of the trends, but believe they can find a new niche in the system.

"The privates have consistently shown an ability to, while not coddling inmates, provide them programs that keep them from coming back to prison," said Mark Nobili, a lobbyist for Cornell. "Once the governor looks at us — and he will have to — it will be clear the benefits the industry provides."

If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives.
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