This post is a guest entry by Jane Atkinson, an MSSW intern working with Grassroots Leadership.
After twice temporarily extending its jail contract with Community Education Centers, the Liberty County Commissioners Court voted last Monday to renew the contract for two years (Cleveland Advocate, "County approves jail contract for approximately $4 million annually," April 16), with an option to break the contract in six months. Though the decision to renew is disappointing, there is hope that the county will push for de-privatization of the jail over the next six months.
Liberty County has had a rough relationship with CEC. After Liberty County implemented some smart-on-crime tactics and lowered its jail population, CEC raised the per diem rate of each person in the jail, keeping Liberty County from saving money (Cleveland Advocate, "County’s jail inmate population down, but companies now asking for more money per inmate," January 21).
In addition to bad financial deals, CEC has also raised concerns over its ability to properly manage its facilities, from failed inspections as recently as 2011, to the recent indictment of a CEC guard for smuggling drugs to inmates. An op-ed I wrote two weeks ago further details the tenuous relationship between Liberty County and CEC. These troubles led to the county considering a new private manager (LaSalle/Southwest Corrections) or taking over jail operations themselves.
Furthermore, a feature by Sarah Beth Bolin of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in the Vindicator makes common-sense recommendations on how the county can decrease the jailed population and save money by not contracting with a private company.
The new contract with CEC comes with a hefty price tag. Last year the county spent $3.2 million on the jail. The new contract is for $4 million annually. That’s an increase of $800,000 when the jail population is actually lower than it was last year. With this contract the per diem rate is on a sliding scale, so if there are fewer inmates the rate increases, which takes away the financial incentive for the county to reduce the inmate population. It was this poor dealing that had the county looking for other options in the first place.
Liberty County Sheriff Patterson said, “I think it will be a win-win situation for employees and the contractors.” But how does the county or taxpayers win in this equation?
On the bright side, a Liberty County official with whom I have been in contact let me know that, according to one Commissioner, Liberty County will pursue a study to determine if the County should run its own jail. With six months to consider a county take-over of the jail, it’s possible the commissioners and the sheriff may yet make a better decision for the county. It is an election year, after all, so there may be some pressure on the commissioners.
Yesterday, Frank wrote that the ACLU, Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, and a broad coalition of civil rights and faith leaders were opposing CCA's recent offer to buy state prisons in return for states maintaining 90% occupancy at these facilities.
Now, these groups are being joined by Texas State Senator John Whitmire, the Dean of the Senate and long-time chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Whitmire, speaking to USA Today ("Private purchasing of prisons locks in occupancy rates," March 8th), had this to say:
"You don't want a prison system operating with the goal of maximizing profits," says Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and advocate for reducing prison populations through less costly diversion programs. "The only thing worse is that this seeks to take advantage of some states' troubled financial position."
Former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz also warned against the temptation of a "quick infusion of cash" saying,
"[m]y concern would be that our state would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population."
Here's hoping state leaders in Texas and beyond see through this proposal.
Last week, a broad coalition, including the ACLU and The Sentencing Project, urged state governors to reject Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) offer to purchase state and local jails. As Texas Prison Bid'ness noted in its coverage of CCA’s offer a few weeks ago, this is a horrible deal for Texas. Here are some excerpts from a letter sent by a broad coalition of worker and human rights organizations:
“We understand that Harley Lappin, Chief Corrections Officer at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently sent a letter to nearly every state announcing the Corrections Investment Initiative – the corporation’s plan to spend up to $250 million buying prisons from state, local, and federal government entities, and then managing the facilities. The undersigned coalition urges you to decline this dangerous and costly invitation.
The letter from Mr. Lappin states that CCA is only interested in buying prisons if the state selling the prison agrees to pay CCA to operate the prison for 20 years – at minimum. Mr. Lappin further notes that any prison to be sold must have at least 1,000 beds, and that the state must agree to keep the prison at least 90% full. In other words, CCA would be buying not only a physical structure but a guarantee that your state will fill a large prison and continuously pay the corporation taxpayer money to operate the institution for two decades. While a prison sale might provide a short-term infusion of revenue, taxpayers in your state would be left paying for this short-term windfall until at least 2032. In short, this proposal to sell a valuable state asset is a backdoor invitation for your state to take on additional debt, while increasing CCA’s profits.
Moreover, the requirement to keep a large prison 90% full for twenty years would pose an obstacle to more serious criminal justice reform. The United States imprisons far more people – both per capita and in absolute terms – than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran. Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail opportunities for probation and parole. The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety. Meanwhile, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crisis confronting states across the nation.
As this sprawling and costly system of mass incarceration damages the nation as a whole, CCA reaps lucrative benefits. As the corporation admits in SEC filings: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices … .’
The selling off prisons to CCA would be a tragic mistake for your state. Mr. Lappin’s proposal is an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse, and decreased public safety. It should promptly be declined.”
The Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network sent a similar letter to governors last week as well, urging states not to hand over control of prisons to CCA.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is offering a heck of a deal to states across America. As the Huffington Post ("Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash In Exchange For State Prisons," February 14) reported earlier this week, in exchange for a 20 year management contract and guarantee that the prison will remain at least 90% full, CCA will buy your prison. Sounds almost too good to be true … well, that’s because it is. While the deal may be bad for states, it is actually great for those of us who oppose the for-profit prison industry. It highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the for-profit prison model: the need to maintain high numbers of incarcerated individuals regardless of the impact on our tax base and our communities.
With skyrocketing corrections budgets, lawmakers in states across the country have reassessed their criminal justice systems. Like in Liberty County, these lawmakers have found that over-incarceration is both extremely expensive and counterproductive to the goal of protecting public safety. Instead of locking people up for low level, non-violent offenses, like drug possession, lawmakers have turned to evidence-based approaches to addressing the issue. As the ACLU pointed out, the results of this reassessment for Texas have been extremely positive. “Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, ‘serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.’" Oh, and these smart on crime reforms have also saved the state more than two billion dollars.
But, as the saying goes (to the for-profit prison industry) … two billion dollars saved by taxpayers is two billion dollars not earned by the for-profit prison industry, thus CCA’s need for its very own mandatory minimum. If Texas were to accept CCA’s offer, it would also have two options: (1) undermine its smart on crime reforms or (2) maintain its reforms and pay CCA to maintain empty cells. Taxpayers lose either way. We thank CCA for highlighting this fundamental flaw.