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Alabama: Editorial blasts for-profits.

Prison lawsuit raises issues
October 21, 2004

Although it is important to acknowledge that the filing of a lawsuit proves nothing in and of itself, the suit filed by an Alabama inmate housed in an out-of-state private prison raises anew some valid concerns about such facilities. The Advertiser has long had reservations about private prisons and nothing in Alabama's recent experience has alleviated them in the slightest.

In April of last year, Alabama began sending female inmates to a private prison in Basile, La., to relieve overcrowding at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama's only prison for females. There have been as many as 300 Alabama inmates in the Louisiana facility. About 185 are there now.

Private prisons are, of course, intended to be money-making ventures, and that creates the potential for some serious problems. Even the most fervent believers in free enterprise -- count the Advertiser among them -- surely can see that the profit motive and the function of prisons are ripe for conflict.

When a state deprives a citizen of liberty for having violated its laws, it also assumes the custody of that individual. That is a solemn responsibility. When an individual is incarcerated for the protection of society, the state is not absolved of the obligation to carry out that incarceration in a constitutional manner.

With a private prison, the pursuit of profit invariably creates the temptation to cut corners, to skimp on safety, personnel, medical attention, nutrition and other facets of the operation. It's simply a bad mix of private-sector motives and public-sector responsibilities.

This lawsuit, filed in federal court in Louisiana, charges that guards at the Basile facility sexually assaulted at least two inmates, raped the woman who has filed the suit, engaged in sexual acts with each other while on duty, and played cards and drank beer during the night shifts. It further charges that Donal Campbell, Alabama's prison commissioner, failed to properly oversee the contract with the Louisiana facility.

The four guards named in the lawsuit have been dismissed. They were indicted earlier this year on malfeasance charges by a grand jury in Evangeline Parish.

The merits of this particular suit will be determined in court, but the inherent problems with private prisons are something Alabama has to face. They are not an acceptable solution to Alabama's prison problems in the long term, and even their short-term use is questionable.

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