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Caution urged on jail privatization.

July 1, 2004
THE COMPLICATIONS are almost too numerous to mention, but it would be unwise not to explore possible cost-saving opportunities through privatization of the Shelby County Jail.

Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson has raised the issue with the proper degree of caution. Obviously, there are more immediate issues that should arrest the attention of commissioners - most notably the fiscal 2005 budget and a tax rate to support it. But fact-finding on privatization as a possible solution to longterm budgetary issues should proceed.

Numerous factors have emerged to complicate the issue of privatizing jails and prisons in the United States. Who's accountable for what happens inside privately run correctional and detention facilities? Who's liable?

The public is often understandably reluctant to put private companies, which are in business to make a profit, in a position to exert control over a citizen's life and liberty, with the authority to use deadly force if necessary. Will contractors cut corners at the expense of prisoners' rights and welfare? Would an experiment with privatization jeopardize the county's emergence from burdensome and costly federal court supervision?

U.S. Dist. Judge Jon McCalla, addressing rampant gang violence and too much control of the jail by gang-member inmates, ruled four years ago that the county was in contempt of a 1997 court order calling for a series of jail improvements. Gang members were controlling television and telephone access, forcing other inmates to do their laundry and confiscating their treats from the commissary. Witnesses described "Thunderdome" brawls that ended with the awarding of championship belts to the winners. Scores of deputy jailers were hired to address the problem, at a cost to taxpayers of millions of dollars.

Very close scrutiny would be needed to make sure the kinds of constitutional violations that got the county jail into trouble with the court in the first place did not reoccur with privatization. Private companies can save the taxpayers money, but in ways that can be highly controversial, such as eliminating civil service protections, reducing pensions and cutting other employee benefits. They promise to improve productivity, but developing realistic cost comparisons is complicated.

In Shelby County, a study of privatization would have to include not just operations but also the financing and construction of a new jail. The Shelby County Jail, which opened in 1981, has undergone many improvements under the administration of Sheriff Mark Luttrell. Its transformation has been, in the words of Bob Bass, detention facilities specialist for the state, "nothing short of amazing."

The jail's population is hovering around 2,000, down from a peak of 2,900 five years ago. But it has a notorious history of violence and crowding, some of which is attributable to its design. The jail was built with architectural consistency in mind as part of a new criminal justice complex. The design, which requires a higher guard-to-inmate ratio than most modern jails, has helped drive manpower costs through the roof. In Thompson's best-case scenario, competitive bids would be taken to find contractors to build and operate the jail at a per-prisoner cost that would save county taxpayers millions.

Fortunately for Shelby County, this is not entirely unexplored territory. There are privately run detention facilities around the country that can be mined for instruction on how well the system works. Thompson, who chairs the commission's law enforcement and corrections committee, also has properly raised the question of whether merging the jail's management with the Shelby County Correction Center would effect economies that would also benefit the county's budget situation.

On the jail privatization issue, he has received written commitments from both Mayor A C Wharton and Sheriff Mark Luttrell to work with him to draw up requests for proposals that would call for bids. Obviously, some exploratory work would be necessary on the front end. Ruling out the notion of a privately run jail would not serve the interests of taxpayers who feel as if they've been constrained by the demands of Shelby County's costly lockup for too long.

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