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January 13, 2007 - New Mexican (NM)

Private Prisons, Public Questions

New Mexico's Use Of Jails Run By Companies Is The Highest In The Country -- And Rising -- But Do They Live Up To Their Promises?

By Steve Terrell

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

New Mexico leads the nation on another list: We're No. 1 in using private prisons to house inmates.

The latest U.S. Justice Department statistics, published in a study called Prisons in 2005, showed 43 percent of New Mexico prisoners were in private lockups.

That's well ahead of the 6 percent national rate for privately held state prison inmates. And the percentage in New Mexico is bound to rise even higher in the near future.

Cells built during a spurt of prison construction under the previous state administration have become crowded, and the state Corrections Department next year plans to add 240 beds to the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility near Santa Rosa.

By the end of 2008, a planned 600-bed private prison is scheduled to open in Clayton. Most of the prisoners in that facility will be state inmates, corrections officials say.

The operator for both of these prisons is The GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut.

The Camino Nuevo Correctional Center in Albuquerque -- operated by Correction Corporation of America -- opened in July. The minimum-security Springer Correctional Center, scheduled to open early this year, will be operated by the state. It will house up to 220 inmates.

This year, the department is asking the Legislature for an additional $37.2 million, primarily for inmate population growth, Corrections Department spokeswoman Tia Bland said. The department's current general fund budget is $240.7 million.

While New Mexico leads the pack, it's not alone in the prison privatization trend. Nationwide in 2005, the percentage of inmates in private facilities rose by 8.8 percent.

Santa Fe lawyer Mark Donatelli, a longtime opponent of prison privatization, contends not much good has come from depending on private operators. "I think of the trail of lawsuits we've been inundated with -- Wackenhut, Cornell, MGC," he said, listing companies that have done business in the state.

Governments, Donatelli said, were "lured in with the promise of indemnification." While nobody ever promised an end to lawsuits over prison violence and other alleged wrongs, Donatelli said, privatization "was supposed to get cities and states off the hook.

"But it hasn't worked out that way. Insurance companies still end up paying, but government officials still find themselves spending time at depositions and trials. And the government is still held accountable in the public eye. Privatization was supposed to wash the stench of prisons off the government. But the stench is still there."

Letting private companies run correctional facilities means the government ends up with fewer experts qualified to monitor jails and prisons, Donatelli said. "Look at how (Santa Fe County) is struggling," Donatelli said.

For about 20 years, the county paid private contractors to operate its jail. In October 2005, after the last private firm ended its contract, county officials decided not to seek a new operator. Two months ago, the jail had a management shake-up.

Cost Questions

When asked about New Mexico's reliance on private prisons, Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Richardson, noted Richardson "inherited all of the existing private prisons."

The state started using private corrections companies under Richardson's predecessor, Gary Johnson, a Republican advocate of privatizing government functions. In the mid-1990s, Wackenhut was contracted to build and run private prisons in Hobbs and Santa Rosa.

Gallegos also said GEO and other current private prison contractors have done a good job under Richardson's watch, and thus the governor endorsed the new facility in Clayton -- a GEO project -- as well as expansion of the Santa Rosa prison.

"The governor would rather spend one-time capital funding on schools and other priorities," Gallegos said. "Private contracts allow the state to lease prison space without burdening taxpayers with the upfront costs of building new prisons."

But do private prisons actually save the state money, as advocates insist? That's the subject of an ongoing debate, a question that hasn't been settled after 12 years. Efforts to reach spokesmen for GEO were unsuccessful, but the company claims on its Web site that it saves governments money in prison design and construction.

"The traditional governmental method of linear and time-consuming contracts for the design and then the construction of a facility is thrown out in favor of a fast-track, design-build approach backed by a fully guaranteed, firm, fixed-fee contract," the Web site says. Private prisons, GEO says, also save money by "designing out staffing redundancies" and "elimination of employee sick time and overtime abuses."

But analysts at the Legislative Finance Committee point out an independent board of inquiry that studied private prisons following the slaying of a prison guard in the Santa Rosa prison was unable to answer the question of whether private prisons save money.

Comparing costs of private and state-operated prisons is complicated by the fact that all New Mexico's maximum-security inmates -- who cost more to house because of the need for constant supervision -- are only in state-run facilities.

One Legislative Finance Committee analyst, who asked not to be named, said relying too much on private prisons has meant the state has gotten away from planning to deal with capacity problems. "When they get overcrowded, the private companies come along and say, 'We'll take care of it for you,' " the analyst said.

The Legislative Finance Committee recently started an audit of prisons to see how much, if any, money is being saved.

Political Cash

Although Donatelli doesn't like private prisons, he quipped they have a silver lining: "There's one group that's really benefited from private prison, and that's the politicians who've gotten enormous campaign contributions from the private prison companies."

Although the Governor's Office has long insisted no connection exists, GEO, which still has the lion's share of private prisons in New Mexico, has become a big player in campaign contributions for New Mexico politicians.

In this past election cycle, the GEO Group contributed about $80,000 to candidates running for state office in New Mexico. The biggest beneficiary was Gov. Bill Richardson, who has collected $42,750 from the company since 2005.

According to The Institute of Money in State Politics, Richardson received more money from GEO than any other politician nationwide running for state office in 2006.

GEO even was listed among sponsors in the program of Richardson's recent inauguration. The company donated between $5,000 and $10,000 for the event, said Richardson's campaign manager, Amanda Cooper.

In addition, GEO this year donated $30,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, which until recently Richardson headed -- although the company contributed $95,000 to the Republican Governors Association last year.

GEO also has given $8,000 to Richardson's running mate, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, in the current election cycle. Denish got $500 from the company in the 2002 election cycle.

The state pays GEO about $38 million a year -- about $25 million to run the Hobbs prison and $13 million for the prison in Santa Rosa. The Clayton prison will have about the same number of beds as the one in Santa Rosa.

Also, the state awarded a GEO subsidiary a contract last year to manage the troubled, 230-bed Fort Bayard Medical Center east of Silver City and to build a $30 million replacement hospital with the help of tax-exempt bonds.

One bit of good news: The state's incarceration rate -- the number of sentenced inmates under state or federal supervision per 100,000 residents -- is well below the national average. This state's incarceration rate in 2005 is 323, compared with the national rate of 491.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or

Private Prisoners

Latest statistics show New Mexico has the highest percentage of state inmates in private prison facilities. While the national average is 6 percent, New Mexico's percentage is much higher, followed by several other Western states:

New Mexico: 43 percent Wyoming: 41 percent Hawaii: 31 percent Alaska: 28 percent Montana: 26 percent

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

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