Throw Away the Key--For Less!

Corrections Corporation of America is a darling of Wall Street and the country's largest private prison company. Now it wants to run Minnesota's newest prison.

Rees, a former prison warden, maintains that most of CCA's employees are career corrections officers. "I have 30 years of experience in this industry," he declares, "and we have a cadre of wardens that each have over 24 years of experience." According to corrections professionals, CCA lures experienced staffers away from government facilities with the promise of future financial rewards. Since private companies can't offer comparable pension plans, companies like CCA have formed Employee Stock Ownership Programs (ESOPs). And according to William Archambeault, a criminologist who studies private prisons, half of CCA's employees have at least $100,000 in company stocks, and half of its wardens are millionaires.

Despite CCA's claims to the contrary, Benson says the industry hires too many novices, endangering both staff and inmates. "It's detrimental to hire inexperienced guards," he claims, "especially when it's anything other than a low-security facility. Someone's husband, son, or father is going to be at this [Rush City] facility. We need to think this through carefully."

But the potential for savings can look mighty attractive to politicians and their constituents. "As policymakers, we can't afford to ignore a proposal that could save taxpayers a billion dollars," says state Sen. Randy Kelly (DFL-St. Paul). Kelly sits on the Crime Prevention Committee, and says that although the DOC has "done a good job in the past," its costs are out of line: "Too much money is being spent on corrections. We rank number three in the nation for per diem costs, and have the second highest inmate-to-guard ratio." (Alaska is the top spender at $106.63 per inmate per day, and Alabama ranks the lowest with a meager $25.10.)

"The considerations go beyond cost," counters Benson. "The Department of Corrections does not support privatization at this custody level because of the risks involved." Benson contends that although the DOC supports farming out contracts for food service and garbage removal, the logic behind a wholesale privatization effort is seriously flawed. "Prisons make money only when filled to near capacity," he says. "What happens [inside the prison] if the population drops and a for-profit company quits seeing profits?"

In the words of Jenni Gainsborough, a spokesperson for the ACLU's National Prison Project, "A company's primary obligation is to its stockholders. And that means keeping profits high and operating costs low. Any thought of rehabilitation is bound to disappear."

But according to Randy Kelly, that's already the case. "A recent study by the Minnesota legislative auditor's office found that our programs, regarded as some of the best in the nation, haven't affected the recidivism rate," he says. Kelly demurs by stating that this doesn't include sex-offender programs, but adds that the Legislature is tired of throwing good money after bad. "Corrections is the fastest growing part of our budget," he notes, "and we'd rather spend our money on education." And since CCA claims to be able to save the state nearly a billion dollars, Kelly maintains that he and his fellow pols would be remiss if they didn't at least consider the offer. "Minnesota spends a lot on its corrections system, but we aren't producing any better results than the states spending considerably less," he adds.

Construction of the Rush City facility is slated for this spring. As delays can run into the millions, political insiders are betting that the Legislature will allow the Department of Corrections to build the prison, and once completed, turn it over to CCA or another private contractor. Kelly concedes that this is a viable option, and says that CCA has already expressed an interest in such a venture.

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