Corrections chief seeks to avoid banning privatized prisons
CONCORD - Less than a week after the state corrections department cancelled the bidding process for privatizing state prisons because of alleged low-quality proposals, the department's chief asked lawmakers Tuesday not to take the further step of banning privatization through state law.
Commissioner William Wrenn testified before the state Senate Finance Committee in opposition to House Bill 443, which would prohibit the corrections department from transferring New Hampshire prisoners to a correctional facility operated by a private or for-profit entity. That would include any in-state arrangement or transfer out-of-state.
An exception in the bill would allow transfers to privately-run facilities when the governor declares by executive order that a "corrections emergency" exists.
The bill banning prison privatization passed the House, 197-136, on March 20.
Proponents on Tuesday were led by state Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, who said, "There is nothing more powerful by government, with the exception of taking a life, than taking away someone's liberty.
"It goes to the core of government and is much different than picking up trash or plowing snow.
"Instead of building our way out of crime, look at the root causes," Cushing said. He said prisoners should be supervised by state workers who have sworn allegiance to the state and federal constitutions.
But Wrenn said the bill would remove "certain inmate housing options that are currently available" and "are important parts of the strategies that would be needed for the management of the over-populations of our facilities, or in the event of an unexpected emergency."
Last week, the state corrections and administrative services departments reported that a consultant hired nearly a year ago by the state found that proposals by four firms bidding for privatized state prison services showed a lack of understanding of court orders, consent degrees and settlements that govern the operation of the corrections system.
"As a result, the departments determined that it was in the best interest of the state to cancel the solicitation process. The decision to cancel, after having invested so much time and consideration, was not made lightly. Rather, it was a decision based upon an appreciation of the fact that the solicitation did not elicit adequate responses capable of meeting the state's legally prescribed needs," the report said.
The two agencies issued requests for proposals to construct, operate and potentially privatize state prisons at the direction of the Legislature in 2011.
Despite the department's decision to stop the bidding process, Wrenn said Tuesday privatization should not be eliminated as an option for the future.
He said the House added a provision to the original bill that would allow prisoners to be sent to private facilities if the governor declares a corrections emergency. The department in that case would be able to enter into contracts in three-month intervals with private firms and for no more than 21 months.
Wrenn said the provision does not define an emergency and is "onerous, potentially costly," and "fraught with unnecessary burdens."
Wrenn said the state's inmate population is 2,640 inmates and has increased by more than 200 inmates over the past 12 to 18 months.
"If this population trend continues, we could face serious challenges in the future at finding housing for our inmate population," the commissioner said.
Senators were told that Vermont's venture into prison privatization was not successful.
Melissa Motel of the Human Rights Defense Center in Brattleboro said Vermont prisoners transferred to a privately-run facility in Kentucky "experienced increased violence."
Overcrowding, she said, resulted in a riot involving as many as 100 prisoners at the Kentucky prison in 2004.
She also said Vermont prisoners "have also suffered from the lack of rehabilitative services in the private prisons with Vermont contracts."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Timothy Robertson, D-Keene, said, "It's so obvious to me that you don't run a prison as a profit-making organization.
"If that makes sense to anyone, then the next thing may be making the State Police privatized for profit."
Added Gail Kenney of Canaan, pastor of the United Church of Christ, "Turning prisoners and prisons into profit centers is not good public policy."
Also speaking in favor of the bill were representatives of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters, while an official of the state Business and Industry Association opposed it.
Arnie Alpert of the American Friends Service Committee said the consultant's report "closed the door" on privatization, while passing the bill into law would "lock the door but leaves the key in your (lawmakers') hands" to reopen it in case of emergency.
"It sends a clear signal that you've looked at this issue and decided the state of New Hampshire should not waste further time and resources looking at this issue," Alpert said.