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N.H. House Considers Bill That Would Block Private Prisons

Concord — The state’s corrections commissioner yesterday urged a House committee to reject a bill that would prohibit the state from using a private prison, saying a ban would leave him in a precarious situation, especially with the prison population growing.

But Commissioner William Wrenn did not go as far as to endorse the privatization of the state’s prisons, an option state officials are investigating now. Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asked Wrenn if he thought privatization was a good or bad idea.

“I don’t think I have enough information yet to make that decision,” Wrenn said, “because we have not finished that (investigation) yet.”

But Wrenn would like the option of using a private prison company, at least temporarily, if the state suddenly found itself with more inmates than cell space. If one of the housing units at the prison was destroyed by fire, Wrenn said he may have no other choice but to hire a private prison company to hold the inmates while the space was rebuilt.

“This (bill) could tie our hands,” Wrenn said.

At the request of former governor John Lynch and the Legislature, the state solicited bids from private prison companies in 2011 for new prisons for male and female inmates. State officials have been reviewing those bids with the help of a private company since the summer but are overdue issuing a report on their conclusions.

The report was expected to go the Executive Council next month but is not yet completed, Wrenn said yesterday.

The bill before the committee, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Robertson, a Keene Democrat, would essentially end that inquiry.

Private prison companies “treat the prisoner worse, pay the (staff) less and keep the heat down,” Robertson said, explaining how he thinks private companies save money. “They’re all things we could do, but it would make for worse treatment of prisoners, and when they get out, it will make them less likely to be law abiding.”

Vaillancourt asked Robertson why not await the review of private prison bids before deciding to forego that route. A few other committee members raised the same question. Rep. Leon Rideout, a Lancaster Republican not on the committee, did too.

“I’m not saying do it or don’t do it,” Rideout said of privatizing corrections. “But we have a study under way. Let’s see what the study produces. The sponsor of the bill is short on any facts and is kind of ignoring the reason we are doing this study. We know we need to do something about our prisons.”

Robertson said there had been plenty of other studies of the private prison industry to convince him privatizing prisons would be worse for the state and the inmates. Most of those who packed the committee’s public hearing yesterday agreed.

The Rev. Alice Roberts, a rector at the Episcopal church in Newport, said a group in her diocese has studied the issue and opposes privatizing prisons because it believes a private company will not enhance the rehabilitation of inmates.

“As part of respecting dignity, justice should not be for sale to the lowest bidder,” Roberts said.