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EDITORIAL Private prison dubious idea

If a private corrections company wants to build a private prison in impoverished Perry County, so be it. Ours is an entrepreneurial system, after all, so if the company is willing to risk its money on this project and have it succeed or fail amid the challenges of free-market capitalism, that's a decision it is entitled to make.
But the taxpayers of Alabama and of Perry County should not have one dime's worth of liability for this project. It is strictly a private-sector undertaking and the state has no obligation whatsoever to use the facility and the services of the company or to support this project in any way.

Officials in Perry County tout the private prison, initially planned for 880 beds, as an economic boon for the struggling Black Belt county, where the unemployment rate is about twice the state average. Their optimism is puzzling, given that it is unclear from where the prisoners who would be housed at this facility would come.

There is little reason to think they will come from Alabama. Johnny Flowers, chairman of the Perry County Commission, said a group of area officials met with Gov. Bob Riley last year to discuss the proposal. Flowers says Riley told the group the state would place some inmates in the facility if it were built.

But that's not what the administration says. Riley's spokesman, Jeff Emerson, said Riley did meet with the group, but made no commitment to house state inmates in the private prison. A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections says the prison system has not agreed to do business with the company and is not in negotiations to do so.

"These gentlemen agreed to build the space on the governor's word. Nothing in writing, but strictly on the governor's word," Flowers said.

If they really did that, it was a very questionable business decision. It's hard to imagine a company embarking on a $20 million project on the strength of a disputed commitment from a governor who might not even be in office a few years down the road.

But there are bigger issues here than who might have said what in a meeting. One is Alabama's experience with the company involved in the Perry County project. LCS Corrections Service is the same company that operates the private prison in Louisiana to which Alabama sent some female inmates in a stopgap move to relieve overcrowding at Tutwiler Prison, where conditions had been declared unconstitutional.

The district attorney in Evangeline Parish is pursuing a criminal investigation into charges of sexual abuse of inmates by at least one guard at the LCS prison in Basile, La. The company has had other problems, including a facility that was the scene of abuses of Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees.

All of this is troubling enough, but there is also the fundamental issue which calls into question the use of any for-profit prison -- the economic incentive to cut corners and thus potentially imperil both the public safety and the safety of inmates. Incarceration is a serious matter and a solemn responsibility for a state. The Advertiser has for years expressed grave reservations about private prisons, and nothing in the Perry County project eases those concerns.

The presence of the prison in Perry County, if indeed it is built, will in no way obligate the state to use it. If the company wants to build it with that understanding, fine. But Riley should state clearly that this is purely a private-sector venture to which Alabama taxpayers have no commitment.

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