June 24, 2018
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Private Prison Problems

It is laudable that Gov.-elect Paul LePage wants to honor his campaign pledges. One of those pledges, though, would reverse an important state policy and undermine Maine’s commitment to humane standards of care.

While campaigning in the Piscataquis County town of Milo, Mr. LePage promised to help those who wanted to bring a private prison there to create jobs. Town officials had worked for two years to convince Corrections Corp. of America to build a prison in Milo’s industrial park. The company is looking for a site for a prison it will build in the Northeast for the federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service. Such a prison would create 300 jobs.

Mr. LePage, eager to transform state government into a partner for economic development efforts, has said he would help town officials in their bid.

But helping Milo could hurt Maine. And understanding these sorts of competing interests is often at the heart of governing. What looks like state government turning a cold shoulder to a local effort may in fact be choosing a greater good.

In order to allow the Tennessee-based CCA to build a federal prison in Maine, state law would have to be changed. Currently, state law prohibits inmates from being housed in for-profit prisons in Maine or in other states. And according to Gov. John Baldacci’s office, CCA officials told the governor the company would not build a facility here unless Maine sent state prisoners to other CCA facilities or at least let the firm bid to house Maine prisoners.

If states turn over their responsibility to house prisoners safely and humanely to private for-profit prisons, they lose some control over the conditions in which those prisoners live. And they risk having prisoners hurt each other. Though the operators of private prisons may have the best intentions, they will be tempted to increase profits by cutting corners on medical care, food and living conditions. Security also can be compromised in the effort to reduce costs, which in turn could lead to catastrophic consequences for prison and public safety. In August, a brazen escape by three men from a private prison in Arizona led law enforcement officials on a multistate search. State officials suggested the private prison security was lax.

In theory, privatizing a government function like operating corrections facilities may lead to savings. Yet many states have decided private prisons are not a solution. In recent years, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have ended contracts with private prison companies.

The networking and sales skills Milo officials have gained in their bid to land a private prison are valuable. They now should be turned toward other efforts — perhaps landing a furniture manufacturer, call center or corporate back office function from out of state — for their town.

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