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Private Prison Has Everything but Prisoners


CALIFORNIA CITY — David Myers' field of dreams sits way out in the Mojave Desert, past a parched golf course, a mobile home park and a snake squished on the two-lane road.

Rising from a field of tumbleweeds and creosote bushes is a new $100-million, 2,300-bed maximum security prison. Myers' dream is to operate the prison for profit.

Myers, a former Texas prison warden, runs the West Coast branch of Corrections Corp. of America, a Nashville company that is the leading builder and operator of private prisons.

In its pursuit of a piece of California's annual $4.7-billion prison budget, Corrections Corp. constructed the prison on speculation: If they built it, the prisoners would come.

But the inmates haven't come, and nothing suggests that the state will ship any prisoners there any time soon.

The vacant prison is the most visible sign of a fight that rages in Sacramento and across the country as private firms try to gain a greater share of the nation's nearly 2 million prison inmates.

Nowhere is the fight more fierce than in California. The state houses the largest prison population in the nation--162,000 inmates--underwrites the biggest prison budget, and has perhaps the nation's most powerful correctional officers union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Gov. Gray Davis--who won his job partly with the support of such labor unions--and many legislators are skeptical of corporations housing people whose liberty has been revoked by government. That's government's job, they say.

"We have obligations to ourselves, to our democracy, to our Constitution, and some obligations to the prisoners to act in a professional manner," Davis says, "and I don't feel comfortable having any prison that isn't managed and operated by sworn officers."

Myers doesn't understand the resistance. Corrections Corp. can ease overcrowding by taking custody of 2,300 convicts today, providing them with as much job training, education and drug treatment as the state cares to pay for, he says.

The cost would be $55 per inmate a day, more or less. Corrections Corp. says that would save the state $10 million a year for those 2,300 beds--though critics cite studies showing hidden costs at private prisons elsewhere in the country, along with high employee turnover and mediocre programs.

"The mistake I make," Myers says, "is that I use common sense."

In politics, however, one special interest's "common sense" solution often infringes on another interest's turf. So it is with Myers' foray into the world of California corrections.

The guards union, which represents 25,000 officers at state-run prisons, stands to lose influence if private, nonunion operators win contracts to incarcerate prisoners.

Union President Don Novey says his opposition does not stem from a desire to expand membership or maintain what Myers calls a monopoly over corrections. "It's about doing the right thing for public safety," Novey says. "The people of the state of California do not want to put public safety into the hands of shareholders."

Making matters tougher for Corrections Corp. is its prison in Youngstown, Ohio. That facility was the focus of a biting story on TV's "60 Minutes" in May. The report told of guards without proper training, a brutal inmate death and the escape of six prisoners who cut a hole in the perimeter fence last year and slipped away in broad daylight.

California's Board of Corrections inspected the new California City facility and found problems such as bunks that are too narrow and paper towel dispensers and electrical outlet covers that could be fashioned into weapons. Myers said the company will make changes to comply with state standards.

To an unpracticed eye, the prison looks like any other prison: steel doors, unbreakable glass, thick concrete, locked control rooms, security cameras--all ringed by razor wire and underground sensors.

An escapee would have to traverse miles of desert. It is a two-hour drive to Los Angeles and eight miles to the rather desolate town dubbed California City.

The empty prison even has a warden, Daniel Vasquez, the burly former head of San Quentin who in 1992 oversaw the state's first execution in 25 years, that of Robert Alton Harris. Vasquez is ready to hire guards--he has more than 1,000 applications--as soon as Myers can find inmates.

"Here we are with this alternative," Vasquez said as he led a tour of the facility, "and the state doesn't even want to look at it."

Myers, giving up on the state for now, is looking elsewhere for inmates, and said he is close to an agreement with other government entities to fill the place, though he won't identify them. "We built it for occupancy," Myers says. "It's first come, first served."

Southern California counties, including Orange and Kern, are considering housing inmates there. The federal government is another potential customer, though a spokesman said the Bureau of Prisons will not turn maximum security inmates over to private operators.

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