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Private prisons succeed only by failing society

My turn

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

I am depressed by the implications of House Bill 149. I reject the notion that the goal of having an 800-bed, privately operated, for-profit prison on the Kenai Peninsula, or anywhere else in Alaska, would serve the overall best interests of the state. There are far better options for bringing Alaskan prisoners in Arizona back home.

Three years ago the Legislature rejected a plan submitted by Commissioner of Corrections Margaret Pugh that would have addressed the problem of prison overcrowding in a responsible way. During that session of the Legislature, certain members of the majority decided that they, with the advice of lobbyists and important campaign contributors, knew better than Commissioner Pugh as to the best direction for corrections in Alaska. Fortunately, a dubious plan to establish a large for-profit prison in the Delta region did not work out, but the cabal appears to have remained in intact. And so now it's down to the Kenai, still with the idea of engaging a private firm to do the promotion, planning and design of the facility, then to operate it as their own - as a money-making enterprise.

Even before HB 149 was signed, Cornell Companies Inc., a Texas-based company, was chosen for the first phase of the scheme, with hardly a gesture toward the idea of competitive bidding. Reportedly, Cornell is the company that acquired Allvest Inc., a firm founded by entrepreneur and former legislator Bill Weimer. We can, therefore, be certain that Cornell has potent political connections in our state. A recent newspaper account referred to the recipients of the Kenai contract and their Alaskan associates as "a politically powerful venture." We see reports that the oil-field service company, Veco, has been brought aboard and, oh yes, that the ubiquitous Bill Weimer is involved in the enterprise.

This is a situation where it behooves us all to "follow the money." In this instance we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. I am reminded of an observation made by my wise friend, Jess Maghan: "At its heart, privatizing prisons is really about privatizing tax dollars, about transforming public money into private profits."

To begin with, Alaska should have never become involved in private prisons. Establishing one in the state doesn't change the fact that prison privatization is a blight on the landscape of good corrections and sound criminal justice policy. The explosive increase in the use of private imprisonment is one of the more tragic social developments in this country over the past half-century. The deep moral flaw in the idea of imprisonment-for-profit should be obvious. Essentially what privatization of imprisonment does is commercialize, and thus make "desirable" those factors that contribute to keeping the prisons filled to capacity. Society turns the function of incarcerating criminal offenders over to business interests who profit financially from keeping offenders incarcerated as long as possible, and have a financial incentive to deal with them in such a manner as to increase the likelihood of their resuming criminal behavior. It should be obvious that to put corrections into the hands of business people whose success depends on the failure of corrections is not a good thing to do.

The 15-year history of the renewal of prison privatization in the United States is rife with evidence of dangerous, destructive cost-cutting policies. Low standards for employment and training of correctional officers have resulted in staff brutality, assaults, disturbances and corruption, as well as a general pattern of inferior performance at the basic task of confining inmates safely and humanely. Cornell Companies Inc. and their cohorts (who have the inside track) will assure you that with the Kenai prison it will be different. I would advise that we not put faith in those assurances.

Again, we seem to have learned nothing from history. The United States went through an era of prison privatization lasting from just after the Civil War until the end of the century. Abuses and corruption became rampant, causing the practice to be abandoned throughout the country. It grieves me to see us going down that road again.

Charles Campbell is a past director of Alaska State Corrections.



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