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Prison plan should avoid privatization

Mar. 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Overcrowded prisons remain a problem in our state and throughout the country. In the past few years, the West Virginia legislature even considered building a new large prison facility.

This year Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed changes to address the continued overcapacity prison situation. According to an article by Bryan Chambers in this newspaper, the governor's 78-page bill "Aims to reduce the prison population ... by letting some inmates out early with supervision, shortening sentences for those who violate their probation or parole on technical grounds and permitting judges to sentence certain drug offenders to substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail time."

Our state absolutely needs to figure out constructive ways to reduce its prison population. However, there is one thing we must not do; we must not privatize our prisons.

It appears that West Virginia has not pushed privatizing our state prisons. Yet this approach became popular in many states in the past decade. They thought that they could "outsource" incarcerations and have prisons run like big businesses to everyone's advantage. We have learned much to the contrary.

The companies that run private prisons have only one goal -- to make tons of money, and they do. They may sound good on paper, but the many problems related to their functioning prove they are not positive for anyone or any community.

One of their techniques is to ship prisoners out-of-state and far from home. For example, Hawaiian prisoners are often sent to Mississippi or Arizona, making it impossible for them to have any personal contact with family.

While most states are desperately seeking ways to handle prison expenses, one private prison company is so flush with cash that it made a multi-million dollar donation to a Florida university. They didn't give grants to students studying criminal justice or social work or anything like that.

Rather, in February of this year, Florida Atlantic University (FAU), located in Boca Raton, Fla., happily accepted a $6 million donation from GEO, one of the two leading organizations in private prisons. FAU's new football stadium will be the GEO stadium. How sporting!

GEO was previously known as Wackenhut Security but changed its name about a decade ago. Today it owns and operates numerous prisons and properties that house people with mental and legal problems in North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa.

The other major player in the private prison industry is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA is ambitious. According to Chris Kirkham of the Huffington Post, this group has sent letters to "48 states to buy their prisons." In doing so, the company asked for a "twenty-year management contract and assurances that prisons would remain 90 percent full."

West Virginians have to understand that our state has limited funds and prisons are expensive. Schools and mental health facilities are likely to provide better returns on our investments than building more prisons or privatizing those we have.

New approaches to dealing with people who break the law are needed. Protecting the public and preventing recidivism are primary goals, but those with mental health and drug abuse problems need to receive appropriate treatment.

It is good to see that our governor and legislature are aware of the need for an economical and effective way to deal with the growing prison population. There are ways to cope with this issue, but the one thing our state must not do is permit one of the private for-profit prison companies to handle West Virginia's prisoners. No one deserves that.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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