PRIVATE PRISON USE POSES RISK

THE DRUG WAR

PRIVATE PRISON USE POSES RISK TO STATE, EXPERT SAYS 

by Bob Doucette

A prison expert told legislators Wednesday that Oklahoma’s dependence on private prisons leaves the state “vulnerable” and that lawmakers should look at ways other than privatization to save money. James Austin, director of George Washington University’s Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections, said Oklahoma could have problems if private prison companies decided to end their contracts with the state or faced financial difficulties and had to close. 

Such a situation would leave the state with thousands of inmates needing cells. As of Jan. 27,Oklahoma’s public prisons are almost 98 percent full, state Corrections Department statistics show. “You would have to gear up quickly, and this is not a business where you can gear up quickly,”Austin said.Austin was the main speaker at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Accountability in Government. Most of the state’s private prisons are owned by the companies that operate them, so the state can’t control what those companies do with the prisons”,Austin said. 

The state’s high dependence on private prisons — almost 24 percent of Oklahoma’s inmates are housed in private prisons — could hurt the state if a company folds or ends its contract with the state,Austin said. According to 2001 U.S. Justice Department statistics, only three states housed a higher percentage of their inmates in private prisons thanOklahoma. Those same statistics showed that only one state –Texas — housed more inmates in private prisons than did Oklahoma. 

The number ofOklahoma inmates in private prisons has dropped since 2001, going from 6,658 to 5,453 as of Jan. 27, according to Corrections Department figures. The current number represents 23.9 percent ofOklahoma’s prison population. But the national average is about 6 percent,Austin said. 

State Sen. Dick Wilkerson, D- Atwood, said those numbers, plus the fact that the state hasn’t increased money paid to prison companies since their contracts began, could come back to haunt lawmakers. We have never given a per-diem increase since the contracts started. What if they say, ‘Guys, we can’t do it'” at those rates, Wilkerson asked. 

Austin said private prisons can build new prisons cheaper and faster than can state governments, and can generally operate them as well or better. But he also noted that private prisons, which usually are newer and have less-experienced staffs, are more prone to misconduct, violence and drug use among inmates. He also said privatizing prisons can, at best, save between 5 percent and 10 percent for states, but sometimes costs are equal to or even more than what states spend on prisons. 

Oklahoma spends $46.55 per day to house each medium-security inmate at state-run prisons, according to the Corrections Department. In private prisons, which are all medium-security in Oklahoma, the state pays prison companies between $40.82 and $45 a day for each inmate, figures show. Larger savings can come by cutting inmate numbers through the probation and parole process,Austin said. 

By trimming the sentences of “low-risk” nonviolent offenders by two to three months each,Texas was able to trim its prison population from 160,000 to 145,000 in one year, saving $80 million,Austin said. He added thatOklahoma could cut its prison population by as much as 10 percent. 

State Rep. Lucky Lamons, D- Tulsa, said officials need to be careful who is classified as “low-risk.” “I don’t want people to think that narcotics offenders are low-risk when they’re not,” he said.

 

URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v03/n155/a05.html Pubdate: Thu, 30 Jan 2003Source: Oklahoman, The (OK)Copyright: 2003 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.Contact: yourviews@oklahoman.comWebsite: http://www.oklahoman.com/Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/318

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