SACRAMENTO — When the experiment began in the 1980s, it promised to reshape the way America housed its prisoners. The concept was simple: Shift some inmates into the hands of private industry.
Critics argued that the sensitive job of imprisonment should not be shared with for-profit companies. But advocates promised lower costs, and states -- faced with swelling inmate populations -- needed beds, fast.
Texas, Florida and the federal government signed on with gusto. In California, however, the growth of private lockups has been stifled by resistance from the powerful prison guards union.
Now comes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican said to favor privatization. With his election, private prison operators found hope of expanding their reach in the state's $5-billion-a-year penal system -- the largest in the nation.
So far, the prospects look bleak. Of the state's 49 prisons and community correctional facilities, only nine are private, each of them a minimum security unit. And three of them will close by month's end, their contracts terminated by former Gov. Gray Davis. Their demise will cut the number of California convicts in private cells to 2,457 -- a tiny fraction of the total inmate count of 160,000.
Operators of the three facilities -- in Eagle Mountain in Riverside County and Bakersfield and McFarland in Kern County -- have spent the waning days of December in a flurry of negotiations with the new administration, hoping to win reprieves. Eagle Mountain residents even sent a personal plea for the prison -- futilely, it now seems -- to Schwarzenegger, who worked there a decade ago while filming "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
"I understand we are small potatoes in the California state budget," said Al Murphy, vice president of corrections for Management & Training Corp., the Utah firm that runs the 438-bed Eagle Mountain prison. Had Schwarzenegger had more time, Murphy said, the firm believes he "would have recognized the value privatized corrections can have in this state."
Officials at the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees corrections, confirmed that the three prisons would close as scheduled. What the future holds for the six other private lockups, they said, is unclear.
"These facilities were mostly opened at a time when we had severe overcrowding," said Tip Kindel, assistant secretary of the agency. "Some of those needs they've served just aren't there anymore."
The private prisons' fight for survival has been complicated by two recent riots. The first, at Eagle Mountain on Oct. 25, raged for 90 minutes and left two inmates dead. The second, at a Cornell Cos. Inc. prison in Baker on Dec. 2, sent four inmates to a hospital, one with multiple stab wounds.
The melees were highly unusual for California's private lockups, which have received excellent ratings from auditors in safety and other aspects of their operations. In fact, the deaths at Eagle Mountain were the first at a private facility in this state. In contrast, nine inmates were killed in California's government-run prisons in 2002 and 13 the year before.
Still, the riots cast a shadow over the facilities, with some inmate advocates raising questions about security, guard training and other policies.
Corrections officials, meanwhile, said the riots had grown to a serious scale in part because officers at private lockups do not carry weapons, unlike those at state-run prisons. Company officials respond that their contracts forbid their guards to use weapons -- even pepper spray -- unlike guards at private prisons in some other states.
They also said the brawls had been triggered by unusual circumstances, for which they blamed the Department of Corrections.
In the case of Eagle Mountain, operators said an unusual turnover of 50% of the inmate population ordered by the department in the weeks preceding the melee had created an unstable atmosphere and rising tensions.
At Baker, officials said, a known jailhouse snitch had been transferred to the prison by the department without warning, sparking the riot. Typically, they said, such an inmate would be housed in protective custody at a state-run prison, not sent to a minimum-security private facility.
A Corrections Department spokeswoman acknowledged the turnover at Eagle Mountain, but said it was a standard part of the prison's deactivation and had not contributed to the riot. The Baker brawl, she said, was still under investigation.
The riots are only the latest flashpoint in an ongoing legal, fiscal and ethical debate over the role of private companies in the incarceration world. As critics see it, trouble is inevitable when the deprivation of someone's liberty is placed in the private sector's hands.