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Kansas: Editorial questions for-profits.

Monday, February 9, 2004
When private jails fail, who will pay?

A news story in the Daily Oklahoman on Friday reported that a private prison built in Sayre, Okla., has been vacant since Aug. 6 and that all but a skeleton crew of its 225 employees have been laid off.

The Corrections Corporation of America, which owns and operates the prison, is hoping that Arizona will contract with it to fill the beds at Sayre and put the employees back to work.

The story was sent to the Register by e-mail by a man by the name of Frank Smith, who also sent a long article purporting to show that the location of prisons in small towns had proved to be bad economics.

Smith didn't give his home address or information about his personal interest in the location of a private prison in Yates Center, which he mentioned in his introduction to the newspaper article.

The closing of the prison in Sayre due to lack of prisoners is a warning to the Kansas Legislature and to Yates Center. It is not necessarily true that building a prison on speculation will produce a long-term benefit.

When an industry that hires 224 men and women in a small town starts operation, it can give the town a big boost. When it shuts down and lays off those employees it's a real downer.

In Sayre's case, the Corrections Corporation of America is taking the biggest dollar-loss, of course. But the unemployed workers suffer the most because they have lost their livelihood and the Sayre economy is far too small to absorb that many workers.

Yates Center is smaller still.

THIS ISN'T AN argument against putting a private prison in Yates Center. Risk accompanies all private endeavors.

But prisons, by their nature, must be closely connected to state government and so the Kansas Legislature should decide what its reaction will be if it authorizes private prisons and they go bust.

Will the state then be obligated -- or feel an obligation -- to save the jobs lost when a private prison shuts its doors? Will prisoners be shifted from state-owned prisons to save private sector jobs? Will prison companies be compensated in some way by the state (and its taxpayers) to ease the blow?

These key questions should be answered in the plainest language before enabling legislation is passed.

-- Emerson Lynn, jr.

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