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Diane Mufson: Sending inmates to private prisons is risky

Oct. 23, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

This is not the month to tout government organization as a model of efficiency. That not withstanding, there are some things that are better left to the public sector, such as public safety. That's not because government is more competent, but because its mission is to serve the public rather than make a profit.

Like many other states, West Virginia's prison population continues to explode. Now, our state is looking at placing some inmates, who agree to it, in out-of-state, privately run prisons. This can be risky for at least two reasons.

First, it is easy to become dependent upon private prisons; they desperately need more bodies to stay in business. They will want our authorities to continue incarcerating large numbers of people rather than seeking alternatives to prison. Secondly, there are numerous reports of significant negative problems regarding prisoners and staff in facilities run by private companies.

Private enterprise is great. It is the backbone of our nation and dedicated to making a profit. We just have to consider how an organization makes the profit. Few people seem pleased that many banks and mortgage lenders made huge profits by facilitating unwise home loans leading to defaults for millions of Americans.

According to an Associated Press article that appeared in this newspaper recently, because of prison overcrowding, the West Virginia Division of Corrections has "scheduled a bid opening for a contract (with private prisons) on Nov. 5." Community Education Centers (CEC) of Houston and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) are reported to have "sent representatives to a mandatory pre-bid conference last week."

These companies are two of the major players in the private prison industry. In 2012, CCA announced that it had a few hundred million dollars available to buy more prisons. According to posts on the Internet, CEC has had its share of problems with personnel and inmates in various facilities.

This news report suggests West Virginia is close to deciding to use out-of-state private prisons, although West Virginia Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said, "there's no guarantee the state will proceed."

A third private for-profit prison group, GEO (formerly Wackenhut), apparently is not involved in the current West Virginia bidding, but it has an interesting history. Recall that Marshall's football team recently played a closely won game with Florida Atlantic University in FAU's stadium in Boca Raton, Fla.

In the beginning of 2013, that stadium was briefly named the GEO Stadium after the GEO Co. made a $6 million donation to FAU. Then some faculty, students and public connected to FAU, which has an owl as a mascot, protested GEO's background, which involved reports of problems with staff and prisoners. FAU's administration decided that this naming, humorously referred to as "Owlcatraz," was unwise.

Commissioner Rubenstein has indicated that he sees using these private prisons "as something temporary during this stage of the overcrowding reduction." While that sounds laudable, reality says that if West Virginia does not have alternative plans for our ever-increasing number of prisoners, many of whom have-drug related offenses, and we have ambitious companies in the market for them, we will be paying big bucks to private prison companies indefinitely.

Long-term plans are needed to diminish our growing prison population. One of the most promising avenues is the use of county adult treatment and drug courts now available in about half our state. That is a much better use of state funds compared with shipping inmates out-of-state to for-profit prisons. That strategy has few if any long-term benefits for West Virginia.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired 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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