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Editorial: Privatized Prisons

Prison privatization was probably not going to happen in New Hampshire any time soon, but that does not mean that the state wasted the $171,000 it spent on a consultant to help study the question.

Indeed, after months of reviewing four companies’ proposals to build and/or operate prisons in New Hampshire, the consultant, MGT of America, and state officials issued two reports last week that made clear just how bad an idea this was. One can only hope that it is dead beyond hope of resurrection.

Officials in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Administrative Services began studying prison privatization in 2011 at the direction of then-Gov. John Lynch and the previous Legislature, which was dominated by overwhelming conservative majorities. By the time the reports were issued last week, of course, the political landscape had been redrawn. Maggie Hassan, the new governor, is no fan of prison privatization, and the reconstituted House passed a bill last month that would prohibit it.

Nonetheless, the reports did confirm a few things that many people had long suspected. The most notable, perhaps, is this one included in the summary of the state’s findings: “The proposals exhibited a lack of understanding of the overarching legal requirements placed upon the (Department of Corrections) relating to the court orders, consent degrees and settlements which, in large part, dictate the administration and operation of their correctional facilities and attendant services to the inmate populations.” The four principal legal cases, dating back to the late 1970s, have evolved over the years into “robust policies governing the operation of the prison system,” according to the report.

The fact that the proposals did not adequately address the fundamental issue of what services prisons in New Hampshire are legally obligated to provide lends weight to something critics have alleged for many years: that the bottom line is really the bottom line when it comes to private companies providing vital government services.

A second area of real concern is compensation. The consultant compared average compensation (salary plus benefits) for the security staff at Concord State Prison with that included in the lowest-cost proposal submitted by a private company. It found that the annual compensation for the latter was one-half that now paid for similar positions by the state. In a low unemployment state such as New Hampshire, this could be expected to make it difficult to retain a trained, experienced staff. In prior studies the consultant found annual turnover as high as 42 percent in private correctional facilities, which it said could have “a direct impact on the safety and security of facility operations.”

There’s no doubt that keeping people in prison is an expensive proposition. It currently costs $36,435 a year to house a male inmate and $37,573 for a female. Over 20 years, those costs are expected to increase 68 percent and 99 percent respectively, to $61,050 per male and $74,631 per female inmate by 2033. These projections include capital costs of nearly $80 million between 2014 and 2019, 94 percent of which would be for building a badly needed new women’s prison and four 64-bed transitional housing units for men.

But expensive as it is, when the state deprives offenders of their freedom, it incurs a moral obligation to oversee their confinement directly, not through a third party. And if the costs thus incurred are deemed too high, then the state needs to make sure it is locking up only those offenders whose crimes make them a menace to society. That is, New Hampshire should be thinking not about how to incarcerate people more cheaply, but instead about how to lock up fewer people.