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SPLC urges Louisiana House to Vote Against Prison Privatization

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in an open letter to members of the Louisiana House, outlined the fiscal and human dangers of House Bill 850, which would allow the state to accept offers for the private purchase and operation of Avoyelles Correctional Center.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in an open letter to members of the Louisiana House, outlined the fiscal and human dangers of House Bill 850, which would allow the state to accept offers for the private purchase and operation of Avoyelles Correctional Center.

Dear members of the House:

We all want safe communities. And we’d all rather see our tax dollars invested in education and job creation that benefits ordinary Louisianans—not corporations or special interest groups. That’s why you must vote against House Bill 850. Through this legislation, the private prison lobby is trying to expand their profits at the expense of our communities.

The Lobby Behind This Bill is Big National Prison Corporations, Not Louisianans

A number of correctional experts in Louisiana have made it clear that our state locks up too many people who commit low-level crimes. To be sure, we need to protect Louisianans from violent criminals and keep our communities safe. But homegrown experts, such as Burl Cain, Warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, have decried the incredible taxpayer waste that occurs when people who are not a threat to public safety end up behind bars. Because private prison companies make a profit only when their beds are filled, we can expect to waste even more money incarcerating the wrong people if HB 850 becomes law. According to the Justice Policy Institute, in 2010 alone, The Correctional Corporation of American (CCA) and the GEO Group had combined revenues of $2.9 billion. There is now big money to be made in the private sector in incarceration, but that money is made with our tax dollars, and with enormous social costs, which will hurt Louisiana.

This Bill Doesn't Make Fiscal Sense: It Has a Huge Financial Cost

The fiscal note attached to this bill reveals that any short-term savings will be significantly offset by long-term costs. After Louisiana sells the prison, taxpayers will still be obligated to pay for prison operations – and this money will go directly to private prison operators. Once the private prison company owns the facility it will be in a position to demand that taxpayers pay higher costs – and, as the fiscal note projects, the cost of operations will increase significantly.

This Bill is Bad Public Policy: the Louisiana Department of Safety & Corrections Should Run Our Prisons

The goals and priorities section of the Louisiana Department of Corrections website states, “We provide for the safety of staff and offenders by maintaining an organized and disciplined system of operations which enhance the stability of all programs… We promote moral rehabilitation… and will provide an environment for offenders which enables positive behavior change.’’ The profit motives of private companies are not aligned with the goals of rehabilitation and safety. Quite frankly, there is little incentive for private companies to provide rehabilitative treatment and services. In fact, the incentive to cut costs to maximize profits presents a threat to the safety of prison staff and prisoners.

Examples of violence and human rights abuses at CCA and GEO facilities include the following:

  • In 2011, our neighbors in Mississippi were sued because of deficiencies in the GEO Group's administration of Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a 1,500-bed facility plagued with dangerous conditions due to the private operator's cost-saving measures. Countless youth sustained serious injury, and one child will live with permanent brain damage as a result of the deficiencies in care there. Because of ensuing litigation, the State of Mississippi now must take costly remedial measures to bring the facility back in line with correctional standards. We in Louisiana cannot afford this type of crisis in our prisons.
  • In October 2011, prisoner fights in several locations throughout a CCA prison in Oklahoma left 46 prisoners injured and required 16 inmates to be sent to the hospital, some of them in critical condition.
  • Between October 2011 and February 2012 five preventable deaths occurred in the GEO-operated East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a prison for people living with mental illness.
  • At least eight people died between 2005 and 2009 at the GEO Group-operated George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the state's only privately run jail. In January 2009, GEO pulled out of operations at this facility, citing “underperformance and frequent litigations" as the reasons.

These tragedies are just a few examples of the human cost of prison privatization. States that have invested in private prisons must contend with increased litigation costs and the kinds of public safety crises described above.

States across the country are grappling with whether prison privatization makes sense in this economic climate. The answer is often a resounding “No". In February, the Florida legislature refused to privatize its correctional system because of the hidden costs and negative public safety outcomes associated with privatization. If a state like Florida, no foe to privatization, had the sense to turn down a similar proposal, the Louisiana legislature should know to proceed with caution.

As you place your vote tomorrow, you must ask yourself – is this a vote to help fill the pockets of the private prison corporations, and is it a vote that will adversely affect your constituents? Please note that no Louisiana interests have come out in favor of this bill; the bill is being driven by out-of-state interests with a profit motive.

Selling off prisons to private companies would be a tragic mistake for Louisiana. House Bill 850 is an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse, and decreased public safety. Vote No on House Bill 850.

Very truly yours,

Katie Schwartzmann
Managing Attorney, Louisiana office
Southern Poverty Law Center

This Bill Doesn't Make Fiscal Sense: It Has a Huge Financial Cost

We urge you to look carefully at the fiscal note filed with this bill. You will see that it has a significant, long-term cost increase for taxpayers. The bill proposes the one-time sale of Avoyelles Correctional Center, with an estimated sale price of $35 million. However, we will then be obligated to pay private providers the costs associated with housing inmates at the prison.

  • The Louisiana Department of Corrections reports that it currently costs $45.37 per day to house each prisoner, and this expense is expected to rise 2 percent every year. This number is actually lower than the national average daily cost of housing a prisoner.
  • The fiscal note for this proposed legislation assumes we will pay a private provider $31.51 per day to house each prisoner, but that amount will increase to $40 in three years, and will increase by 5 percent every five years thereafter. Moreover, it provides that this amount can be increased if a request is made in the executive budget. The bill is deceptive; it purports to establish an impossibly low per diem that makes savings seem dramatic, when actually, in just a few years, the per diem will approach that of the Department of Corrections, and it allows the private company to seek additional money. At that point, we will be unable to control costs, and they will spiral out of control, because:
  • The sale of our prison is final. We can never get it back. It will be leased by private entities from this point forward. The lease proposed in HB 850 is only for 20 years. At the end of 20 years, we will be forced to renegotiate a lease contract with the private company that now owns our prison. They will be able to require whatever rate they want of us.
  • If we maintain operation of the facility by the Department of Corrections, we control costs, we decide how much to spend, and we can change public policy in response to rising costs. If we sell our prison, it is a BIG long-term loss for taxpayers.
  • The fiscal note makes clear that the "savings" do not account for significant additional expenses associated with the bill. Close to 400 Louisiana families are going to lose a breadwinner. The "savings" associated with the one-time sale of our prison do not account for the $3.4 million in expenses that we will incur paying termination and unemployment expenses to these families, or the long-term costs to all of us from folks losing their jobs in this economy. Beyond unemployment expenses, we all will pay as those families are forced to turn to social programs for assistance, and to emergency rooms for medical care, as they will be uninsured. We cannot do this to 400 of our families, just so that we can make private prison companies richer.