Wisely, Maine gave firm no to private prisons

Maine flirted briefly in 2011 and 2012 with a bill that would have allowed construction of a private prison in the Piscataquis County town of Milo.

Officials there, where unemployment has been high, have been talking for several years with the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison operator in the country.

Both Gov. Paul LePage and Gov. John Baldacci had shown interest in dealing with privatized prisons in order to reduce Maine's corrections expenses which are, on average, 136 percent higher than similar rural states. Both men also received campaign contributions from the private prison company.

But the legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee drove a stake through the heart of the idea when it voted unanimously just days into this year's legislative session to kill the bill.

The wisdom behind that vote has become apparent in recent weeks after The Times-Picayune newspapers in New Orleans ran a disturbing examination of Louisiana's prison system.

The state is, the newspaper reported, the prison capital of the world. On a per capita basis, it imprisons more people than every state in the U.S., which itself has the highest national incarceration rate in the world.

The U.S., with 5 percent of the world's population, imprisons 25 percent of the world's inmates and has 2.3 million people behind bars.

So first in American means first in the world for Louisiana. Maine, meanwhile, has the lowest rate in the country.

To understand the stark contrast, consider this: In 2008, Louisiana imprisoned 853 people per 100,000 population. Maine, meanwhile, imprisoned 151.

The Times-Picayune revealed the perverse sort of profit motive that may help explain Louisiana's high rate.

While there are several private prison companies operating in the state, more than half of the state's inmates are in jails operated by parish sheriff's.

This came about in the 1990s when the state, faced with an overcrowding problem, encouraged the sheriff's to build their own prisons.

Sheriff's are paid $24.39 per person per day, yet they manage to generate a "profit" that is then used to pay their officers and finance their departments.

Meanwhile, they are seen favorably locally for creating jobs.

Ironically, violent and repeat offenders are funneled into the state's separate prison system. There they can learn trades or even earn a college degree.

Non-violent offenders, meanwhile, sit idle in local prisons, often warehoused for years before their release.

Despite its willingness to lock people up, Louisiana still has the highest crime rate in the country.

Meanwhile, a system of legislators and sheriff's fight any efforts to reduce sentences for non-violent offenders.

The story is similar to another punishment-for-pay scheme revealed last year. In Pennsylvania a juvenile court judge was sentenced to 28 years behind bars for funneling young people into a private system. The judge had received nearly $1 million from the developer who built the detention facility.

All of which shows that building a profit motive into the imprisonment and punishment of human beings creates an incentive for corruption and abuse.

The goal instead should be diverting non-violent offenders into other treatment programs, while training and educating those remaining behind bars for life on the outside.

That, unfortunately, is expensive.

* Related editorial from 2010.

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Comments

MARK GRAVE's picture

“Sheriff's are paid $24.39

“Sheriff's are paid $24.39 per person per day, yet they manage to generate a "profit" that is then used to pay their officers and finance their departments.”

This is exactly why you would want private prisons. Just think about it, the same people who make the profit have the power to fill the prisons.

Don’t you think there would be better checks and balances if the law enforcement, the ones who incarcerate, doesn’t have a financial stake in housing the prisoners?

Moreover, private prisons typically house prisoners for less.

Let me recap. Private prisons remove the profit motive from law enforcement to incarcerate, cost less, and create jobs.

Zack Lenhert's picture

"Private prisons remove the

"Private prisons remove the profit motive from law enforcement to incarcerate"

...but there still is a profit motive, it has just shifted. Private business exists to make a profit and shareholders want to see "growth". A private prison has ZERO incentive to reduce crime, more incarcerations equals more "customers". The people of Maine would likely see the introduction of a bunch of new laws by the prison lobbyists, this is happening now in other states.

"Non-violent offenders, meanwhile, sit idle in local prisons, often warehoused for years before their release."

"All of which shows that building a profit motive into the imprisonment and punishment of human beings creates an incentive for corruption and abuse"

IMO there should be no profit motive for incarceration... or healthcare, seems unamerican to me.

MARK GRAVE's picture

The dirty little secret is

The dirty little secret is that if anyone benefits finically from the prison system, that group of individuals has a motive to expand spending that benefits that group – human nature.

For example, employees of a state run prison system have a vested interest in growing their control and influence. Just look at those states that have unionized correctional officers and run away cost those states have to deal with. Look at Maine’s prison costs that are 136% above average.

The worst of all situations is where law enforcement benefits directly and they have direct control over incarceration rates. That is a recipe for abuse.

Given that the prison system does not exist in the absences of special interest, the best solution is to separate those who incarcerate from those who benefit from those who are incarcerated as much as possible.

“IMO there should be no profit motive for incarceration... or healthcare,
seems unamerican to me.”

This is an idealistic goal, but not practical in the real world governed by humans with human emotions, such as greed and envy. Let’s deal with reality, not idealism to find the best solution to minimize special interest.

In closing, privately run prisons have a proven track record of being cheaper than state run systems. Moreover, the degree of separation between beneficiaries and enforcers is the best as it gets.

If you have an “real world” idea to eliminate special interest all together, let’s hear it. Just wishing it so is not good enough.

RONALD RIML's picture

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.....

"The U.S., with 5 percent of the world's population, imprisons 25 percent of the world's inmates and has 2.3 million people behind bars."

The Gulag of the America's??

MARK GRAVE's picture

Ronald, A good number of

Ronald,

A good number of these people are house for non-violent drug possession charges. Why are these people in jail? Couldn’t those resource be better applied to, say, methadone clinics.

Yet another example from Mr. Right that demonstrates government could repurpose resource to be more effective without raising taxes.

Moreover, this is just another example of government failure.

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