Pubdate: Sat, 13 Jan 2007
Source: New Mexican, The (Santa Fe, NM)
Copyright: 2007 The Santa Fe New Mexican
Author: Steve Terrell


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?

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.

New Mexican Virtual Tours 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

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

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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MAP posted-by: Derek