Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jun 1998
Source: North County Times (CA)
Contact:  Timm Herdt, Star State Bureau Chief
Note: Author's email address is: A PRISON FOR THE FUTURE 

Kern County: Private firm is ready to make a bid to house state's felons.

Sometime this week, bulldozers will begin to carve the high-desert landscape
of Kern County to make way for a $94 million development unique in
California: a massive, privately built prison.

Sometime later this month, a Senate committee will consider a constitutional
amendment that would assure that not a single felon convicted in California
courts will ever spend a day inside it.

In a state where politicians and voters have consistently embraced
enhanced-sentencing laws, but have in recent years shied away from nearly
every proposal to build new prisons, the private project in California City
is destined to become a battleground in a big-spending political war.

On one side is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which
has become one of the state's most powerful unions because of its
fast-growing membership and its savvy alliance with Gov. Pete Wilson. It is
joined by every major public-safety union in the state.

On the other is the Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest
private-prison firm. It is joined by others in the industry as well as
nearly every association of local governments in the state.

At stake is the ability of California to house all its convicted felons
beyond the year 2000, the continued clout of a union that has negotiated
starting salaries of $38,000 a year for state prison guards, and a $94
million speculative investment of a growth-driven company.

"In California, you're facing a prison crisis," said David Myers, the
company's regional president for the West Coast. "The state has nothing on
the drawing board to meet that crisis. And with nothing on the drawing
board, there is a likelihood of court intervention, triggering early
releases of inmates."

Corrections Corp. officials are banking that, by taking the initiative to
build now, they will force the issue of privatizing prisons in California.

While this is one of 27 states that contracts with private prisons, the
state has taken only limited and cautious steps. Only about 3 percent of
state inmates are in private facilities, and those are at small institutions
that handle only low-risk inmates. A number of other states have been much
more aggressive; that is why in just 15 years Corrections Corp. has built 72
jails and prisons in 19 states, three countries and Puerto Rico.

In one way, the California City proposal has already forced the issue in the

Sen. Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward, the former Senate president pro tem and
current candidate for attorney general, has introduced a proposed
constitutional amendment that would bar government agencies from contracting
out for public safety services.

Although city representatives fret that the measure might prohibit such
fringe activities as hiring private meter maids, the intent is clearly to
block private-prison operators from gaining a foothold in California.

Lockyer's SCA 30, co-authored by Ventura County's Jack O'Connell and nine
other Senate Democrats, has passed two committees and is expected to come
before the Senate Public Safety Committee soon -- perhaps as early as next week.

As a political maneuver, it is a clever strategy. The prison guards' union,
after a profitable eight-year alliance with Wilson, is shopping for new
friends. Trying to eliminate competition that might hire guards who are
either nonunion or affiliated with a different union is a good way for
Democrats to make friends.

Myers said his company, too, will be making contributions to state political
candidates, "but we can't compete with the CPOA."

There are respectable policy arguments for and against privatizing prisons.
Myers insists states always save money by contracting with his company.
Critics say private operators usurp an essential government responsibility
and that the cost-cutting of profit-driven managers will ultimately result
in prisons that are unsafe.

In the end, it is hard to see how Corrections Corp. can lose on its gamble.
Within two years, the Department of Corrections will have absolutely nowhere
else to turn to house new inmates. If no state contract is signed before
then, Corrections Corp. can fill most of its beds in California City with
federal inmates or those from other states.

Until the issue is resolved, however, politicians from both parties --
particularly those running this fall -- will do whatever they can to keep
the issue hot enough to maximize campaign contributions from each side.

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett