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Prisons for profit: California inmates head to corporate lockups

Thousands of California prison inmates are preparing to pack their bags and head east–to privately-run prisons in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arizona and Indiana. Already, the state Department of Corrections has begun polling inmates to find out who wants to go. So far, some 19,000 prisoners have raised their hands.

“The reason we are moving inmates out of the state in the first place is that we will literally run out of beds by next spring,” said department spokesman Bill Sessa. By pushing ahead with the transfers, the maximum capacity date will be pushed back to June 2008, state officials said.

The looming migration of California medium-security inmates to other states
is not unique–Hawaii has state prisoners residing in Arizona, for example–but the custody shift dramatizes the troubles in California’s overcrowded penal system, where some 17,000 inmates are triple-bunked, or sleep in gymnasiums and common-area rooms.

The prisons’ health-care system, now under the supervision of the federal
court, is viewed as substandard and dysfunctional. Assaults on correctional
officers are common, warfare among rival inmate gangs is rampant, programs
to rehabilitate and educate inmates are inadequate, and attempts to build
more prisons are running into political roadblocks. About nine out of 10
prisoners are males, about half are in custody for crimes against people,
and about one-fifth are imprisoned for drug offenses. More than 29,000
inmates have been sentenced to life, about 3,400 to life without parole.

The immediate problem is overcrowding, with three-dozen prisons holding more
than 173,000 inmates. Between 100 to 1,000 inmates enter the system each month–depending on local prosecutions. Critics point to failed parole policies, a 70 percent recidivism rate that is double the national average, and inadequate training and education programs.

“If you could reduce recidivism by 5 percent, if you could reduce the need
for 3,000 inmate beds, you could save a half-billion dollars in construction
costs and $100 million in operations costs,” said Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, who heads a Senate select committee on prison issues.

One solution, announced by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this month, is
to ease the overcrowding by sending inmates to private prisons in other states. Schwarzenegger’s corrections chief, Jim Tilton, says the shift will ease “the dangers posed by this crisis.”

Not everyone likes the idea.

The correctional officers who guard the inmates question the training and staffing quality in the private prisons. The 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a union whose members guard prisoners, are sharply critical. “The deprivation of a person’s liberty, incarceration, is inherently a governmental function. When an inmate sees a representative who is charged with that person’s custody and care, that representative should represent the people of the state of California and not a corporate board of directors,” said CCPOA vice president Lance Corcoran.

Phil Angelides, a CCPOA ally and Democratic candidate for governor, “has
serious concerns about the legitimacy and capabilities of privately operated
prisons,” said campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw. “[He] believes that keeping
our communities, correctional facilities and courts safe against criminal or
terrorist acts is a key role of government and is a job for properly trained, sworn personnel.”

Schwarzenegger announced $50 million in multi-year contracts–three years
with optional, two-year extensions–to move 2,260 California inmates out of
California to prisons run by two major prison corporations–Florida-based GEO
Group Inc. and Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America.

CCA manages 62,000 inmates in more than five dozen facilities, including 38
institutions it owns. It runs the largest private-prison system in the nation, eclipsed only by three states and the federal government; CCA runs about half of all the private prison beds in the country. GEO, meanwhile, runs 42 prisons and manages 37,000 prison beds in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. A third contract with another prison-management company, Cornell Companies, is expected to be announced shortly, Capitol insiders say. Cornell, founded by social workers, manages just under 20,000 inmates in 79 facilities.

The companies have donated to key California campaigns. Since 2003, GEO has
given $68,000 to Schwarzenegger causes, while CCA donated $152,000 during the first half of 2006, including $100,000 to block a ballot initiative pushed by Hollywood filmmaker Rob Reiner.

California has a half-dozen private institutions, such as Cornell’s Leo Chesney Correctional Center in Live Oak, that house some 2,800 lower-security inmates. There also are several public community facilities, with some 2,400 inmates, and they operate under local contracts. But these facilities, both private and public, are also crowded.

Thus, California must go outside the state to find locations for its nmates. The state is looking to private facilities because the public prisons in many states–such as California–are crowded. Indeed, in one state, public-prison officials there had hoped to transfer inmates to a private facility, then learned that the same company already was negotiating for California prisoners. Officials in that state were not pleased.

There is limited interest in building new private prisons in California. Companies who might be interested in building the facilities–the state
actually has two proposals circulating, totaling about 9,000 inmates–are not
enthusiastic, in part because of requirements that those facilities be staffed with CCPOA officers. In private prisons, the daily cost is about $63 per inmate, while the public prison cost is about $90, according to the state.

Compounding the problem is the plight of the county jails, themselves overcrowded, even as they serve as temporary homes for inmates destined for
state custody. About two-dozen county jails are subject to court-ordered
limits on their inmate populations.

“So what you have are local jails that are filling up with inmates who belong in state prison, and that has a domino effect of overcrowding in the jails. The prisons are full, and the overflow goes to the jails, which are releasing lower-level prisoners,” Sessa said. “In our mind, that creates a public-safety issue.”

California, expanding its contracts, hopes to transfer 5,000 prisoners out
of the state within the next six months. Teams of Corrections officials are
traveling to the state’s institutions, finding suitable candidates.

Maximum-security prisoners, and those with special physical or mental-health
problems, are not likely to be transferred, nor are prisoners targeted for
retribution by other inmates. If California cannot find enough inmates to
move voluntarily, they will transfer prisoners involuntarily.

The Schwarzenegger administration’s transfer plan is drawing scrutiny from
skeptical lawmakers. “I conclude, based on the evidence, that private facilities are no more effective than public facilities in the incarceration or rehabilitation of inmates,” said Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who heads a prison-oversight committee. “On the security issue, they will only accept basically the lowest-level inmates. If that’s the case, we’re sending probably those most eligible for rehabilitation programs out of the state.

We should be doing that in the state of California–that’s on this governor’s
watch.”

But aside from the issue of transferring inmates, a deeper question is whether a person who commits acts against society should be guarded by a private person instead of by the government. “That’s a philosophical argument,” Corcoran says. “There is no move to privatize police departments en masse, although there are security firms. You don’t see much in the moveme
nt to privatize fire departments, or the courts or the military. None of those is on the table.”

“[Corrections Department officials] are literally marketing this with brochures, much like a cruise ship, with pingpong and billiard rooms and a choice of menus or seating. You are in an overcrowded situation, and [officials] come along with relief,” Corcoran added.


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