"The motivation of a for-profit company is very different from the government's motivation, which is supposed to be public safety and rehabilitation," said Cara Gotch, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "A company has obligations to its stockholders, which often leads to a desire to cut corners and can mean unconstitutional conditions for inmates."
Despite such reservations, privatization has steadily expanded its reach in corrections. For decades, entrepreneurs have supplied states and counties with a multitude of services, ranging from running work-furlough programs to operating halfway houses for parolees. In the 1980s, that role expanded as former prison wardens, social workers and others moved into the business of running entire prisons.
The appeal of such ventures was obvious -- particularly in states with booming inmate populations. Private companies did not have to wait for voters' approval of bonds to build their facilities, so they could bring cells on line faster. And, largely by paying lower wages, many firms could offer states a cheaper per-inmate incarceration rate.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service -- now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services -- was one of the first government entities to contract with private firms, hiring them to provide short-term detention of suspected illegal immigrants.
Since that beginning, most states have tried private incarceration in some form or another. Proportionally, New Mexico has the most private beds of any state -- with nearly half of its convicts housed by for-profit companies, the ACLU's Gotch said. Texas and Florida also have been leaders in the use of private prisons, and in New Hampshire, the governor recently expressed interest in privatizing the entire prison system.
In California, the first group of private facilities -- Eagle Mountain among them -- opened in 1988, a time when the inmate population was mushrooming. With state-run prisons bulging, inmates had begun challenging the conditions of their confinement and judges were issuing orders that threatened to lead to widespread releases unless crowding was eased.
"The hallways were filled with double bunks and the inmates used buckets to go to the bathroom," recalled Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency at the time.
"We were just desperate for space," Brown added. "Building new prisons was one answer, but that took too long. So the privates became part of the mix."
Privatization appealed to the Republican governor at that time, George Deukmejian, as well as to his GOP successor, Pete Wilson. But from the start, the private facilities were bitterly opposed by the labor union representing prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
The union fought privatization in part because it does not represent guards at the company-run facilities. But Brown, now a lobbyist for the union, said its opposition goes beyond that: "Government's job is 100% to protect the public. With the privates, the job is to make money."
Though California's private prisons have won high marks from state officials and independent auditors, some private lockups in other states have been dogged by violence, mismanagement and escapes.
Over the years, the union has used such horror stories to help sway California legislators against any effort to expand private prisons, which have been limited in the state to housing small numbers of low-security inmates. The union has distributed news clippings of private prison problems elsewhere in the country, as well as a CBS television "60 Minutes" segment on troubles at a Corrections Corp. of America lockup in Ohio.
Davis was sympathetic to the union arguments. Two years ago, he proposed closing five of the nine private prisons, saying that he opposed the concept of privatization in corrections and that the tumbling population of low-security inmates made them no longer necessary.
Defenders of private facilities cried foul, suggesting that Davis had been motivated by politics. The prison guards union, they pointed out, was one of Davis' biggest campaign contributors -- having spent $2.3 million to get him elected in 1998. In 2002, a few weeks after Davis proposed closing the five private prisons, the union gave him $250,000.
A vigorous campaign succeeded in saving two of the prisons: the one in Baker and a highly praised women's facility in Live Oak, north of Sacramento, both run by Houston-based Cornell Cos. Inc.
But a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the other three were no longer needed because of a dip in the type of low-security inmates they house. Moreover, expected changes in the parole system may cut that population even more, funneling parole violators into community treatment centers rather than back to prison.
"We're hoping to shave another 15,000 off our population eventually, so the need for these minimum custody beds just won't be there," spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.
Private prison operators say they are aware of the trends, but believe they can find a new niche in the system.
"The privates have consistently shown an ability to, while not coddling inmates, provide them programs that keep them from coming back to prison," said Mark Nobili, a lobbyist for Cornell. "Once the governor looks at us -- and he will have to -- it will be clear the benefits the industry provides."