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Increase in inmates opens door to private prisons

California officials want to ease crowding and cut costs. Owners of the facilities foresee growth.

August 24, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

FLORENCE, ARIZ — . -- Mark Childress knows prisons -- from the inside.

Though only 36 years old, he's done stretches in 10 state lockups, including some of the toughest around. And now California has locked him up again -- this time in Arizona.

Childress is a part of a first wave of about 700 male convicts that California has shipped to privately owned and operated prisons in Arizona, Tennessee and Mississippi. "I feel good, like I could do another 10 years," he said, half-jokingly.

The nation's big private prison companies like it too. Having long lusted after a share of California's 173,000-inmate population, they now foresee a steady stream of business.

Depending on the outcome of legal challenges, California could be "one of the longtime drivers of growth for the private prison industry," industry analyst Kevin Campbell said.

Until December, the state had not put a medium- or maximum-security prisoner in a private lockup since 1852, when it replaced a private prison ship in San Francisco Bay with California's first public prison, San Quentin.

Private companies say they can build secure prisons faster and cheaper than state governments and are not saddled with the high salaries and pension costs paid by public agencies.

Critics counter that states that use private prisons get what they pay for: Guards are poorly paid and trained, and private prisons experience more escapes and more disciplinary problems than state-run institutions, they contend. And the state is sending away its better-behaved prisoners, they say, making California prisons even more dangerous.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Justice Department, said in a 2001 study that limited research showed that "privately operated prisons function as well as publicly operated prisons." Management problems usually are caused by poorly drafted contracts and poor oversight of private operators by states, the study said.

The public-private dilemma is hitting California head-on -- with corporate America battling the prison guard establishment.

The search to find more room for California prisoners -- and pressure from federal judges -- led to a $7.4-billion plan proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved by lawmakers in April. It gave the private prison companies the opening they've long sought.

For decades, these companies attempted to win contracts to house convicts in privately owned or leased in-state prisons, only to see their efforts thwarted by the wealthy, politically influential California prison guards union.

Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, the industry leader, even built a 2,300-bed, maximum-security prison as a speculative investment in Kern County in the mid-1990s. The state balked, and the facility now holds federal prisoners.

Now, California has signed a contract with Corrections Corp. to house as many as 4,000 prisoners at a per-prisoner price of $63 a day. That compares with the average of $123 a day that the state estimates it costs to keep an inmate in one of California's 33 prisons.

Opposition to private prisons from the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., other state employees organizations and prison watchdog groups remains potent. They sued in Sacramento Superior Court to halt the transfers and won. But the judge put her ruling on hold pending an appeal in February.

"I'm dubious that it's a good idea for the state to embrace" private prisons, said Steve Fama, an attorney with the nonprofit inmate advocacy group Prison Law Office near San Quentin. Prisons are "a core state function," he said.

The governor should control the prison population by releasing nonviolent offenders and reducing parole revocations, not by building more prisons and sending inmates to other states, Fama said.

California is one of at least 30 states that have turned to the private prison industry for help after realizing that they couldn't build enough prisons to keep pace with a flood of new inmates as lawmakers passed ever-tougher sentencing laws.

Over the last decade, the number of inmate beds in private prisons has jumped sixfold to about 112,000 in mid-2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most of the growth was at three major operators -- Corrections Corp., Boca Raton, Fla.-based Geo Group and Houston-based Cornell Cos.

"We think we can play a significant role in a solution to the problem" in California, said Tony Grande, Corrections Corp.'s vice president for state government relations. So far, California has sent 317 prisoners to Arizona, 312 to Mississippi and 80 to Tennessee.

Prison industry analysts, impressed with the growing demand for private prison beds, are upbeat. The stocks of the three big companies have shown solid growth this year. "We remain bullish," said Jeffrey T. Kessler, a Lehman Bros. equity researcher in a recent report.

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