Wisely, Maine gave firm no to private prisons

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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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