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New Mexico: Expose on for-profits

. Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico)
July 26, 2004
Dan Shingler
Prisoners for profit?

New Mexico turned to private prisons for help in the '90s due to crowding and violence. Some say it's a good mix, but others argue companies are only in it for the money and overlook inmates' rights.

In New Mexico, crime pays.

It does if you're in the private prison industry. That's because New Mexico has embraced private prisons like no other state in the nation.

"New Mexico has been a pioneer state in terms of private prisons," said Steve Owen, spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, one of three big prison companies doing business here.

About 42 percent of New Mexico's prison inmates are confined in private facilities, said state Corrections Secretary Joe Williams. That's down slightly from last summer, when just more than 44 percent of the state's inmates were in private prisons, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Movement of some prisoners to state jurisdiction has lowered the number, Williams said.

But New Mexico is still far ahead of even its closest rival, Arizona, which confines 29 percent of its inmates in private facilities, or No. 3 Montana, where 26 percent of prisoners are in private lockups.

Nineteen states have no prisoners in private custody and only 6 percent of all federal and state prisoners are in private prisons, the Department of Justice reports.

Prison companies say they hope New Mexico is at the forefront of a trend.

"The state of New Mexico is far out in front and, in fact, makes a great argument for expansion of public/private partnerships in other states," Owen said.

Private prison opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, inmate advocates and Democratic lawmakers say they hope the trend will be reversed. At least one Democratic state senator, Michael Sanchez of Belen, advocates a state takeover of private prisons, though he says that effort probably won't find much traction in the Legislature.

But prison officials, including Williams, say the state has found a balance of private and state-run prisons that works and will likely stick with it.

Move to privatize

What began as a trickle of business for private prisons in the 1980s with a women's prison in Grants and a men's prison in Torrance County turned into a torrent of inmates and revenues under former Gov. Gary Johnson, who wanted all the state's prisons privatized.

That wasn't going to fly, particularly with Democratic legislators opposed to private prisons.

But a combination of too many prisoners and not enough money or political will to build new state prisons fast enough was the leverage Johnson needed, said Rob Perry, corrections secretary under Johnson for five years until 2002.

"I told Johnson, 'You can privatize, and I've got a plan. But, boss, you can't privatize everything,' " Perry said.

Perry's plan was to use private prisons to handle low-level offenders, typically what the state classifies as up to "Level 3" offenders in a system that goes up to Level 6. Level 6 includes murderers, gang members and prisoners who have already been involved in prison violence.

Writing on the wall

Perry got the chance to put the plan into action as political efforts to build more state prisons stalled, and overcrowding and the prison violence attached to it continued.

As early as 1996, Perry said, private prison companies saw the writing on the wall and began planning facilities in New Mexico with or without state backing. By 1997, Wackenhut Corp., now Geo Group, began building private prisons in Guadalupe and Lea counties.

Meanwhile, CCA began expanding its facility in Torrance County from 286 beds to 910 beds.

"On their dime they built them on spec," Perry said, meaning that the companies built the prisons largely on their own speculative belief that the state would one day pay them to house prisoners.

They were right the state was ready to sign contracts to relieve crowded and dangerous conditions in its own prisons by the time the new facilities were open, Perry said.

"The first guy to the finish line is the guy I'm going to use," he recalled.

Perry's plan to have private companies confine the state's medium-risk inmates is the model used by the state today. Ultimately, CCA of Nashville, Tenn., Florida's Geo Group and a Utah company, Management and Training Corp., ended up running five prisons in New Mexico.

Their business here seems unlikely to be challenged.

Profit motive

Gov. Bill Richardson has said he opposes prison construction in the state, public or private, and Williams said the mix of state and private prisons is about where it should be.

Williams was previously a warden at a private prison run by the Geo Group in Hobbs. He spent seven years as a warden at state prisons before that.

"That 42 or 44 percent is something I inherited. It wasn't Joe Williams coming in and privatizing the state of New Mexico. However, statistically, I think we have a pretty good mix," he said.

Opponents of private prisons say meting out punishment should be the responsibility of the state and that the profit motive is an invitation for trouble.

"Any time you attach a prisoner's welfare to a profit motive, you're setting up a potential compromise in the sorts of conditions the inmate receives," said Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico. "They don't get adequate medical care, sometimes their cells are inadequately equipped. The private prisons find ways of minimizing staff expense. They try to minimize contact between staff and inmates, which is a prescription for disaster, because all it does is further alienate the inmates and buffer the jail personnel from sensing any problems inside."

Even Perry, a strong advocate of private prisons, says they have their shortcomings. That's particularly true when it comes to the experience of guards, he said, and prisoners are aware of it.

Perry recalled a conversation he had with a convicted murderer while he was corrections secretary one that helped convince him that maximum security units should be staffed by experienced state corrections officers.

"This guy tells me, 'I'm doing a 480-year sentence and I'm 20 years in. A lot of these guys (guards) were bagging groceries last week. Who do you think is going to be better at what they do: me at being a prisoner or them at being a guard?' "

State monitoring

But both Owen and Williams say training is not an issue and prisoners can be protected from the profit motive.

Williams said he agrees the state should watch the private prisons closely to make sure corners aren't cut to increase profits. And he said the state does just that.

"We have a full-time contract monitor at all of our sites. In Hobbs, we actually have two. We do continual quality-assurance monitoring with groups and we also do security monitoring," Williams said.

As for the guards, Williams said they're as well trained as guards at state-run prisons.

"State law in New Mexico requires everyone to be a certified corrections officer," Williams said.

"I set the standard as to what's certified and what's not, and they have to go through the same academy and training as the state's corrections officers."

Owen said states ensure that companies such as CCA provide the services they want by writing contracts that hold private prison operators accountable.

"All of those issues and the amount of training hours are required contractually. Typically, our guards are contractually required to have the same amount of training as a state corrections officer," he said. "Most of our institutions do have full-time, on-site contract monitors who represent the customer," which is the state.

Exchange of ideas

Williams said the state benefits from private prisons because they often bring innovative ideas.

"They pick up ideas from each other," he said. "The privates see what the state is doing and the state sees the privates."

Williams and Owen said both state and private prisons look for better ways to operate.

Both are working to help prisoners successfully re-enter society through programs such as job apprenticeship and fatherhood classes.

Owen said his company is working with the Mexican government because many prisoners are Mexican citizens who will be sent home after release.

Rather than train them to pass a U.S. high-school equivalency exam, CCA works with them on passing Mexico's version of the exam, Owen said.

Bottom line

But what about the money? Private prisons argue they can operate more efficiently than state-run institutions and save the state money.

That might be true and it might not, Williams said.

The average cost of keeping a prisoner in a state facility is $36,000 a year, while the average cost of putting a prisoner in a private facility in New Mexico is about $22,000 a year, Williams said.

But the numbers aren't comparable, he said, because maximum security facilities are more expensive to maintain than medium security.

And private prisons also play by different rules. They do not have to deal with the unions that cover state prison employees. And, because private prisons are newer and better designed, they're allowed by state law to hold two prisoners to a cell something state prisons can't do with their cell configurations, Perry said.

Morally opposed

Mark Donatelli, a Santa Fe lawyer who has represented inmates since 1976, said he's most opposed to the use of private prisons or jails by local counties and cities. Too often the operator is paid a daily rate and somehow prisoners don't get out on the day they should, he said.

"It's morally offensive to me," he said. "The private entity is not us and we are responsible for (incarcerating criminals) and can't delegate it to anyone."

Donatelli said profits and prisons don't mix in general.

He recalled the time he saw one prison with a sign over the guard's time clock showing the company stock price for that day.

"When you have a profit sharing option, you can't help but have that in your mind when you walk into the cell block and the prisoner asks you for toilet paper," he said.

"People might get the picture more clearly if we had private executioners," he said. "'Gee, you mean you can pay someone $5,000 to put a bullet in someone's head?' We really need government to carry out the function of punishment."

Ironically, his example has happened in New Mexico.

When child killer Terry Clark was put to death by lethal injection in November 2000, the state hired private contractors from Texas to push the plungers, Perry recalled.

He said that was a good thing, because no one in New Mexico's correctional system had experience with death by lethal injection.

"Would you rather have a guy from Texas come in and work on your teeth, or would you rather have someone else who's just learning how to do it?" he said.

Shortage of inmates

There are signs, however, that the bubble may be bursting. Crime rates are not climbing as rapidly as in the 1980s and 1990s and there are not more prisons.

Some lockups are low on prisoners.

Santa Fe County built its 672-bed jail in 1997 and borrowed $30 million to do it.

"Somebody told Santa Fe County 'If you build it, they will come,' but it's not happening," Sheriff Greg Salano said.

While it was once full of prisoners many from the state and federal systems the first year it opened the jail now houses about 540 inmates, and 325 of them are the county's own, Salano said.

"There are just not enough inmates to go around anymore," said Salano, who opposes private prisons and jails.

Santa Fe County took over its juvenile jail from a private operator last fall, and plans to take over its adult jail as well, he said.

With all the new prisons competing for inmates, Salano figures his jail won't be a moneymaker, but that's fine by him.

"It (competition) has taken all of the profit out of it, which I think is good. I don't think we should be making a profit off this," he said.

Private Time

Here are New Mexico's privately run prisons. Corrections Corporation of America of Nashville, Tenn., runs the Torrance County and Grants jails; Florida's Geo Group runs the the Lea and Guadalupe county jails; and a Utah company, Management and Training Corp., runs the Santa Fe County jail.

Prison Capacity State inmates State rate 2004 state payout

Santa Fe County 682 144 $55.30 $2,778,300

Torrance County 910 192 $51.90 $3,681,100

Lea County 1224 1192 $53.55 $23,515,900

Guadalupe County 600 600 $56.49 $11,964,800

Grants 596 541 $12.21-$56.64 $10,921,200 (estimated)

Source: New Mexico Department of Corrections

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