What's driving prison privatization?

Last modified: 6/27/2012 12:00:00 AM
In the 2011 state budget bill, the Legislature established a committee to develop a plan for privatizing the Department of Corrections and to review proposals submitted to the commissioner of administrative services. That committee was charged to report its findings and recommendations to legislative leaders, the governor and the public by December 2011. Efforts to extend the life of the committee and its deadline for reporting failed.

Nonetheless, the privatization plan appears to go forward without further legislative review.

The reasons for this movement are unclear at best. The generalized claim of cost savings has little or no support unless the intention is to provide even fewer services and substantially reduce conditions in the prisons.

Studies by the American Friends Service Committee and the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance amply demonstrate that the companies bidding to operate private prisons here have not produced those savings elsewhere. Even worse, as Arnie Alpert discussed in his column ('Public deserves a say in private prison debate,' Monitor Opinion page, June 23), the operations of those private prisons have been critically substandard. Thus, while failing to achieve the desired savings, the private companies have exposed the government to lawsuits.

So, if cost saving is not the goal, what is going on? There is reason to suspect that there are those in the Legislature who wish to reduce the size of government regardless of the consequences and others who believe that the private sector can always do things more efficiently than the government can. In the case of prisons, New Hampshire should have learned by now that constitutional constraints impose standards that cannot be ignored. Those constraints do not permit reductions in staffing and conditions that are required to make the operation 'profitable.'

It defies logic to believe that an institution can be operated at cost plus profit for less than it can be operated at cost alone. Therefore, if cost saving and efficiency are the legislative goal, the search should be for a more efficient operating system rather than a new operator with a profit motive. That is especially true when the private operators have a track record of cutting corners which expose the state to liability.

(Richard A. Hesse lives in Hopkinton.)

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