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My Turn: Privatize detention centers? Bad idea

Last modified: 3/26/2015 12:34:28 AM
The budget proposal adopted by the House Finance Committee calls for big cuts in the budget of the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s residential detention center for juvenile offenders. It also mandates “the option for the Department to enter into contracts to operate the facility.” The outsourcing provision would be included in HB 2, the budget “trailer bill.”

We’ve been around this block before.

In 2011, the budget trailer bill mandated creation of “a committee to develop a plan for privatizing the department of corrections,” and specified that “on or before September 1, 2011, the commissioner of administrative services shall issue a request for proposals by vendors for provision of correctional services or any other services provided by the department of corrections.” That line set in motion a costly two-year investigation into the outsourcing the state’s prisons to a for-profit firm.

First, staff at the Departments of Corrections and Administrative Services spent five months preparing three lengthy “requests for proposals” to solicit interest from private firms. Bids from four companies arrived several months later. The pile of documents was so high that the state needed an outside consultant to evaluate them. It took four more months, and an appropriation of $177,000, for the state to hire MGT of America to analyze the proposals.

It took another nine months for MGT to complete its report.

Among its findings were that the wages the companies expected to pay were so low that it “could result in high turnover and ultimately impact and safety and security of the correctional facilities.” Based on the consultant’s report, the state ended the outsourcing process.

“The decision to cancel, after having invested so much time and consideration, was not made lightly,” the Departments of Corrections and Administration said.

With that in mind, we should not go lightly into a new privatization process, this time for youth corrections.

Evidence from around the country has shown that for-profit companies are ill equipped to handle the responsibility of incarceration, whether the prisoners are juveniles or adults. Their facilities tend to be under-staffed, less secure and don’t even save money for taxpayers.

Just last week, a riot broke out at the Les Peters Academy, a juvenile correctional facility near Tampa, Fla. It’s the third time violence has broken out at one of G4S Corporation’s juvenile facilities in the Tampa area.

Last summer, Florida canceled a contract with another for-profit operator of youth detention facilities, Youth Services International, after evidence of excessive or unnecessary use of force.

A lengthy report by the Huffington Post says, “Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades.” Not only that, Florida’s “sweeping privatization of its juvenile incarceration system has produced some of the worst re-offending rates in the nation.”

Caroline Isaacs, who has documented abuses at for-profit facilities in Arizona and nationwide, says “the track record in juvenile facilities is even more horrifying than the usual for adult prisons.”

We’ve been around this block before. Let’s not do it again.

(Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire co-director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization devoted to social justice and peace.)


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