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Montgomery Advertiser on private prisons

The Associated Press State & Local Wire
January 13, 2005

The severity of Alabama's prison overcrowding problem is undeniable, but the use of private prisons to address it is a dubious proposition with many aspects that should give the state pause. Add the political pressure that's sure to come with the completion of an in-state private prison and the potential for trouble only grows. Site preparation has begun on a private prison at a site near Uniontown in Perry County.

It's touted as a means of bringing jobs to an impoverished part of Alabama that sorely needs them. There are other issues, however, that are far less clear-cut than the area's unquestionable need for jobs. To begin with, the entire concept of private prisons has some inherent drawbacks.

The Advertiser has long expressed reservations about these facilities and nothing in Alabama's experience with them has alleviated those concerns in the slightest. Private prisons, of course, aren't charities. They are for-profit enterprises established with the intent of making money for those who own them.

Although the profit motive is a valuable incentive in the private sector and much to be encouraged there, the incarceration of prisoners is a far different matter than the selling of goods. In a for-profit prison, the pressure to make money, to meet the expectations of financing institutions, stockholders, managers and others with a financial stake in the prison, stands to affect operational decisions in ways that aren't consistent with the public's interest and the public's safety. The temptation to cut corners is a serious concern.

The safety of the law-abiding public is paramount, but there also are profoundly important questions about the inmates. When the state deprives an individual of liberty, as it is decidedly justified in doing for the protection of the citizenry, it also assumes responsibility for that individual, both for physical incarceration and for attempted rehabilitation. The name of the state agency that runs the prisons is, after all, the Department of Corrections.

Turning over that responsibility to a for-profit entity is highly questionable public policy. Backers of the Perry County prison project say they are proceeding with the expectation that the Department of Corrections will want to use the facility to ease overcrowding in state prisons. The department has stated - several times - that it has no connection with, or input into, the construction of the Perry County prison and has made no commitment of any kind to use the facility.

That should remain the case. If the prison is built, there doubtless will be a great deal of political pressure brought on the department and Gov. Bob Riley's administration to place state inmates there. It must be resisted.

The state would be far better served by enacting serious, sensible sentencing reforms that reduce the needlessly high number of people incarcerated, and by frankly acknowledging its obligation to maintain a prison system that is adequate to do the job required of it.

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