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Kansas: Letter to the editor.

Feb. 24, 2004
For-profit prisons are not the answer

For the past decade, executives and lobbyists of Wackenhut Corrections Corp., now called the GEO Group, have haunted the Kansas Legislature, looking to build for-profit prisons. Kansas outlawed them after early experiments went sorely awry.

GEO testifies that it can hold inmates for less than it costs Kansas in public prisons. In reality, study after legitimate study fails to find any taxpayer savings. These have been conducted by entities such as the nonpartisan General Accounting Office, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the state of Tennessee.

GEO claims the more notorious problems the corporation experienced happened long ago. But many escapes, sexual assaults by staff in Austin, Texas, and horrendous abuse of juveniles at Jena, La., were fairly recent. The latter closed that facility.

Would a for-profit prison help rural Kansas? Studies analyzing rural public prisons show exactly the opposite effect on local economies. A for-profit would be built and staffed with non-union, low-paid workers.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults in for-profits are 66 percent higher than in public prisons. Guards are attacked in for-profits 49 percent more often. Nationally, annual staff turnover was 52 percent in the privates but only 14 percent in the public pens. For-profits experience up to 30 times more escapes than do public prisons. Who pays if convicts were to get loose in Kansas; if they cause harm to residents? Who pays for searches and apprehensions?

Should an out-of-state convict assault or kill another prisoner or a guard, Kansas would become responsible for his prosecution, defense, continued incarceration or even execution.

For-profits make profits cutting corners, particularly staff salaries. A murdered WCC guard in New Mexico received $7.95 hourly. Conversely, GEO's CEO made $2 million in 2002; its COO $1.3 million. Add costs of stockholder dividends, public relations, campaign contributions and lobbyists, and we taxpayers are the poorer for it all. The difference in living wages that might otherwise be paid to public employees in Kansas is exported as out-of-state profits. GEO is headquartered in Florida.

For-profits often tend to corrupt officials. In Reno County, the ex-Sheriff just finished a year in prison after taking $284,000 for privately contracting out his Hutchinson jail.

Many churches oppose making profits on incarceration, including Presbyterian, Episcopal, Mennonite, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, the Society of Friends and the Catholic Bishops of the South.

Capital costs of these prisons are often hidden from the taxpayers who ultimately pay. Construction costs are rolled into per diem rates. Lease revenue bonds and certificates of participations keep public funding from coming before voters as bond issues. When money is poured into more and more prisons, whether public or private, other publicly funded sectors lose, especially higher education, highways and K-12.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the privates is that to fill their prisons, they lobby for ever longer sentences through their membership in organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

For-profit prisons will not provide a solution for Kansas prison overcrowding, nor are they the answer to rural economic development.


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