Rocky Mountain News
Critics assail private prisons
Companies cut dangerous corners for profit, some say
By Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News
March 7, 2007
Critics say Colorado's private prisons are driven by shareholder profits and that, ultimately, society pays when businesses "cut corners" on staffing costs and inmate rehabilitation.
The result is incidents such as a 2004 riot at a CCA prison in Crowley County, witnesses told a House Judiciary Committee hearing on private prisons Tuesday.
State Department of Corrections officials had to come to the rescue of 33 private prison officers who lost control of 1,112 inmates.
The state fined CCA $126,000 in June for short-staffing at Crowley and another facility after the state auditor blasted CCA for having a staff-to-inmate ratio that was one-seventh of a state prison at the time of the Crowley riot.
"That's a direct result of you get what you pay for," testified Ryan Sherman, an official for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which is crusading nationally against private prisons. He cited a U.S. Department of Justice report saying that private prisons have a 50 percent higher violence rate than their public counterparts.
Officials for CCA, the nation's biggest private prison operator, didn't make excuses for the Crowley riot.
"Frankly, we hadn't done enough homework," said CCA Vice President Tony Grande, acknowledging that the firm hadn't assessed the risk of transferring about 200 Washington state inmates to the Colorado prison population.
But officials said that CCA strives to learn from mistakes and improve its performance.
CCA's Josh Brown estimated that the firm has saved Colorado $492 million of prison construction during the past decade by providing nearly 4,000 in-state and 480 out-of-state private prison beds. He also cited 900 workers in the state and a $40 million annual payroll that boosts the economy in rural areas where prisons often locate.
But critics said that private prisons don't serve the public interest by constantly squeezing profits. They cited CCA's shipping Colorado prisoners hundreds of miles to Oklahoma. Critics say the prisoners can't receive family support or maintain community ties critical to successfully re-entering society.
"It has proven to be dangerous, and it is immoral to introduce a for-profit motive into the incarceration of human beings," said Christie Donner, of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Rep. Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, pointed out the disparity between starting pay for CCA guards, $24,000, and state prison guards, who earn $31,000.
By the numbers
Corrections Corporation of America is the biggest private prison provider in the U.S. and Colorado.
$82 million in annual state payments were made to CCA for providing Colorado prisoners with 3,850 private prison beds in-state and 480 beds in Oklahoma
$51.91 is the daily rate per prison bed
70,000 is CCA's total inmate population in the U.S.
gathrighta@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5486
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