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May 02. 2013 9:00PM

Bill to forbid private prisons is killed

CONCORD - State corrections officials will not be prohibited from using private prisons in the future.

The Senate on Thursday voted 13-11 nearly down party lines to kill House Bill 443, which would have forbidden the state from privatizing prisons.

The votes comes several weeks after state corrections officials and the Attorney General's office announced that the state was cancelling the bidding process for privatizing state prisons because of what they said were inadequate proposals.

Supporters of the bill said private prisons often maximize profits at the expense of prisoners who are separated from their families. They said private prisons focus on driving costs down while paying scant attention to rehabilitating inmates, which the state has an incentive to do to keep them out of corrections system once they are released.

But opponents say the state should not tie its hands and it needs the flexibility in the future, particularly in an emergency if a prison burned.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said there are no contracts on the horizon for using private prisons or turning the state's prison system over to a private company to manage.

The bill is not needed, he said, adding that the discussion began two years ago when former Gov. John Lynch proposed looking into prison privatization.

Morse said that process was flawed, and the state at some time in the future may want to investigate the possibility again.

"To prohibit it, is just wrong," Morse said.

But Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, said private prisons provide less care and attention to rehabilitation and more concern about keeping costs down and prisoners in their beds.

She said the state is turning its attention to the existing corrections system and investing in a new women's prison. "We need to keep prisons in the public sector where the best progress is made," Larsen said.

Sen. David Pierce said prison privatization is a very serious moral issue, noting taking someone's freedom has more impact on a person's dignity than anything else a government can do.

Today, there are more than 100,000 people in private prisons in this country, Pierce said, noting the United States incarcerates more people than Russia, China and Iran With private prisons, there is pressure to incarcerate more and more people to fill their beds, which results in a push to make more acts criminal, and to increase the number of inmates who return to prison, he said.

Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn opposed the bill.

Under the bill, the state could transfer prisoners to a privately-run facility in an emergency.

The bill passed the House, 197-136 in March.


grayno@unionleader.com


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