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PLN editor quoted in editorial re private prisons in Idaho

Lewiston Morning Tribune, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN editor quoted in editorial re private prisons in Idaho - Lewiston Morning Tribune 2010

EDITORIAL: Prison contractor and Idaho share a bitter profit

Posted on: Wed, 08 Dec 2010 09:56:47 EST

Dec 08, 2010 (The Lewiston Morning Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX)

Idaho leaders decided fourteen years ago they could save money by hiring out management of the Idaho Correctional Center near Boise to Corrections Corporation of America.

For the politicians, this has been a good deal.

Privatize prisons and you inevitably weaken unions within the corrections industry. It's no coincidence that the bulk of CCA's contracts occur within right-to-work states. So instead of correctional officers funneling their union dues to Democratic candidates, for-profit corrections corporations send their dollars to GOP leaders.

CCA provided Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter $10,000 for his 2006 campaign; for his re-election effort, CCA gave Otter $9,000. Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne got $7,500 between 2002 and 2006, and the Idaho Republican Party collected $5,000 in 2005-06.

Private prison management also works out neatly for some inmates.

With the contractor shaving every quarter spent on staffing, the con who survives within the ruling prison culture -- if not thrives on it -- has more freedom from surveillance. Don't be surprised if inmates find the guards at private prisons, who are paid and trained less, more amenable to bribes.

For the individual who finds himself at the mercy of such violence, however, private prison management is a nightmare. Such was the case for Hanni Elabed, a 24-year-old ICC inmate who got in trouble with a member of a violent prison gang.

The Associated Press obtained video that shows inmate James Haver of Coeur d'Alene stomping on Elabed unimpeded by prison guards. Haver injured Elabed so severely that he suffered permanent brain damage.

Nor was he the only one.

In Idaho, an AP records check found violence at the private prison three times more prevalent than at the eight facilities still under state management.

Representing some of ICC's inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing CCA for $155 million in damages, the company's entire net profit for last year. ACLU attorney Steven Pevar calls CCA's management of the Idaho prison a "gulag" and others have called it a "gladiator school."

Now the FBI has launched an investigation into whether ICC staff violated the inmates' civil rights.

Nationally, a 2001 Bureau of Justice Assistance report found private prisons had 50 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults than public prisons. Nearly the same ratio held for inmate-on-staff assaults.

Three years later, a Federal Probation Journal study found private prisons had more than twice as many inmate-on-inmate assaults than in public prisons.

On paper, CCA manages to guard about 2,000 people for $40.28 each per day. It costs Idaho $52.22 per inmate per day to do the same thing.

So if Idaho were to assume control of ICC, it would cost another $9 million.

Not so fast, says prison advocate Paul Wright of the Prison Legal News. It's more like "comparing rotten apples to rotten oranges."

Like all private prison contractors, CCA cherry-picks its population -- the medium- and minimum-security prisoners who are cheaper to supervise. The expensive cases -- security threats, the violent offenders, escape risks, death row inmates, females and anyone with a physical or mental ailment -- typically gets assigned to a state-run institution.

A 14-year-old Government Accountability Office study reviewed five private prisons and found cost savings elusive.

Private contractors make money by reducing staffing levels to the bare minimum, paying less and keeping training costs low. The result is staff turnover that is four times greater than at public prisons.

But the savings don't necessarily get to the taxpayer. Get in line behind shareholders and CEO compensation.

Whatever savings society enjoys by simply warehousing felons under brutal conditions, it pays later when they complete their sentences and emerge on the streets.

And if the private contract manager shows more concern for rehabilitation and reducing prison recidivism than shareholder value, he's removed, replaced by someone who respects the corporate bottom line.

All of which leads to one inescapable fact: Idaho has made a mistake. But the error was not selecting CCA. It was privatizing its prison management in the first place.

Some things you don't privatize.

Enforcing the laws.

Administering justice.

Counting the votes on Election Night.