One company, Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, is already operating a half-dozen correctional facilities, and has proposed they assume control of Tennessee's prison system for the next 100 years.
Prisons for profit have their detractors, though. In Pennsylvania alone, organizations as diverse as the AFL-CIO, Council of Churches, American Civil Liberties Union, Guardian Civic League and Urban Coalition have joined the Pennsylvania Prison Society in opposing private, for-profit prisons.
The arguments of these opponents are both philosophical and practical:
* Historically, the state has had the sole power to abrogate a citizen's freedom. Should that awesome responsibility be delegated to the highest private-sector bidder?
* Is such delegation of powers legal?
* Can an already spartan environment be made even more primeval for
financial profit? What would be the impact on the imprisoned?
* Can governmental entities afford the economic body blows that will result
from lawsuits against the delegated prison vendor? Courts have ruled that governmental authorities cannot escape such suits.
* Entrepreneurs eager to reduce expenses will not only reduce personnel - guards, teachers and social workers - but pay them near-minimum wages. Is this consistent with long-term goals and sound public policy?
I think not, and so did a large majority of my colleagues in the House, who last April voted, 163-34, for a one-year moratorium in the development of private prisons in the state. Unfortunately, House Bill 307, a well-reasoned bill, has been altered in the Senate so that it now refutes both logic and evolutionary thought on the subject. The revised version calls for a moratorium, while encouraging private-sector takeovers through company- oriented licensing provisions.
The track record of "punishment for profit" operations, as some have critically labeled them, is not all that impressive. Inmates have been accidentally killed in Texas, juveniles have been assaulted and denied adequate medical treatment in Florida, and cost overruns have become part of the Tennessee private prison landscape.
A one-year moratorium to research the pros and cons of privatization is a small price to pay for so critical an issue. House Bill 307 should revert to its original intent, a comprehensive investigation, not pell-mell unregulated development of prisons-for-profit.
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