THE WASHINGTON POST B10 St Sunday, January 18, 1998
With Lawrenceville Facility, Va. Enters World of Privately Run Prisons
State's First Private Prison Open In March
(Photo caption) Warden Ron King stands in the doorway of a cell In Virginia's newest prison, In Lawrenceville. A private company, Corrections Corporation of America, built and will run the facility.
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Lawrenceville Va. - Ronald J. Angelone, the tough-talking New Englander who heads Virginia's corrections - system, is checking out the newest prison in the state, a 1,500-bed, medium-security facility.
"Nice ambiance," he wisecracks when he sees the mauve-and-gray color scheme in one of the prison's 250 cell housing units. "Not sure they would have gotten that from me."
At the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, unlike at other facilities in the state, Angelone doesn't call all the shots. The prison, which will open in late March in this rural community in Southside Virginia, is the state's first experiment with turning over the custody of its inmates to a private company.
Virginia is a latecomer to the privatization of corrections. In 26 states and the District, 154 privately run prisons with a capacity of 107,500 prisoners are in operation or under construction, according to the Private Corrections Project at the University of Florida's Center for Studies in Criminology and Law.
In 1984, there were none. This rapidly growing industry has become the darling' of state legislatures and Wall Street, which tout its savings for taxpayers and profits for shareholders. Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, which built and will run the Lawrenceville facility, has seen the value of its shares jump from $18 million when it went public in 1986 to $3 billion today, with $400 million in annual revenue. And there are at least 18 other U.S. companies vying for prison contracts here and abroad. Australia and the United Kingdom also have turned over prisons to U.S. corporations.
"As long as the courts are protecting everyone's rights, and if it's cheaper, then it's better for the taxpayer. Period," Angelone said. "What else is there to discuss?"
But civil libertarians and advocates for prisoners' rights have argued that there may be no great savings, that some private prisons are unsafe and that the profit motives may corrupt an integral part of the judicial system because privatization creates an incentive to incarcerate -- not rehabilitate.
Moreover, critics say, even if such institutions are well run and fiscally prudent, the very idea of turning over to private enterprise one of the state's fundamental burdens - denying citizens their liberty - is morally repugnant.
'"I've called it 'dungeons for dollars,'" said Ira Robbins, a professor of law at American University. "Prison is not simply a service. It's not like privatizing water treatment or garbage collection. It's part of the justice system, and I don't believe it's wise or constitutional for the state to delegate the incarceration function."
Robbins said he also fears that private prison companies undermine the search for alternatives to prison by successfully lobbying for longer sentences and the abolition of parole to keep their business humming.
"They have a clear self-interest: Each prisoner is more profit," Robbins said.
But Charles Thomas, director of the University of Florida's privatization project, which is funded, in part, by industry donations, said there is no evidence of lobbying on sentencing issues by private concerns.
"It's a legitimate concern, and it's something that has to be watched," Thomas said. "But it hasn't happened. Why would they waste their money on such lobbying when the prison population has been ballooning since 1975 without industry lifting a finger? The states created the need for private prisons because they found themselves in a fiscal squeeze when they needed more prison space. That's true across the U.S., and it's true in Virginia."
The Lawrenceville prison - a series of low buildings with two large exercise yards, all surrounded by two razor-wire fences - looks like most other new facilities, private or public. The staffing levels - five guards to each housing unit during the day - are similar to new public facilities.
But the state expects to save 10 percent to 15 percent of what it would have cost if the corrections department built and operated the prison over its projected 20-year life, Angelone said.
The bonds to build the $42 million prison were issued by the Industrial Development Corporation of Brunswick County, which contracted with CCA to build the facility in 18 months Because of Virginia's open bidding procedures and procurement and review policies, state officials said it would have taken the state two to three years to construct the same facility.
The per-inmate annual cost at Lawrenceville will be $12,500. Although the state does not have en exactly comparable facility, a 1996 report to the state Senate estimated that CCA's operating cost would amount to a 20 percent savings for taxpayers. The per-inmate annual cost for all state prisoners in Virginia is $16,360.
CCA officials and Angelone said that after construction, private operators can continue to obtain savings by avoiding the state's procurement requirements and through savings on labor costs. Although CCA's starting salaries are similar to the state's the company does not offer a fixed pension plan but instead offers employees stock options for retirement.
State officials also point out that the prison will be a boon for the local economy in Brunswick County, a tobacco - growing area: without much industry. About 320 people will be employed at the prison and, CCA will have to make an annual payment of about $165,000 to the county in lieu of property taxes. State prisons do not pay property taxes to local jurisdiction
"The money to the county is going to upgrade water and sewage and help develop the infrastructure of the county," said Grady Martin, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. "And then we can attract other jobs here. We're going to be a model for the state."
Nationally, the. savings associated with privatization has been hotly debated. A 1996 General Accounting Office review of various cost analyses of private vs. public prisons found that the studies did not "offer substantial evidence that savings have occurred." A subsequent state-sponsored study in Louisiana of three identical prisons—two private, one public - found savings of 10 percent. And Virginia officials say their own projection studies show cleat savings.
"There have been striking failures and striking success, but, generally you see 10 to 25 percent savings," said Thomas, of the University of Florida
Critics of private prisons have questioned the level of training of guards at private facilities and raised questions about the safety of prisoners. In Texas the beating of prisoners at a privately run facility owned by a Mississippi corporation that housed state inmates from Missouri was captured on videotape and is now in litigation, And D.C. prisoners in a CCA-run in Youngstown, Ohio, are suing the company, alleging that they were beaten, tear-gassed and maced on a daily basis.
"We don't comment on pending litigation," said Susan Hart, a CCA spokeswoman. "We will address specific allegations in court and we are confident the court will rule in our favor."
Thomas said that private prisons have a financial stake in creating safe conditions because, unlike public bodies, they can be sued for financial damages under a U.S. Supreme court ruling.
Angelone said he could not defend any abuse, but he noted that civil rights violations have occurred facilities and that CCA employees in Virginia are required to have the same training as public employees.
"We will have very strong oversight, as we do with all, our prisons,". he said, noting that the state would place a full-time monitor at the Lawrenceville facility to ensure that CCA complies with its five-year contract to run the facility. The state also will keep a hearing officer at the facility, and all disciplinary matters, including added on for bad behavior, will be handled by a state official - although CCA employees can recommend discipline.
"We're going into this with our eyes open," Angelone said. "If they don't do a good job, we 11 kick their butts out of here and get someone else in."
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