Gov. Paul LePage on Monday nominated the warden of a private prison as his new Department of Corrections chief, a pick Democrats and human rights groups worry will lead to for-profit prisons in Maine.

LePage selected Joseph Ponte, the warden for the Nevada Southern Detention Center, which is run by the Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison operator in the country with about 60 facilities in about 20 states.

LePage said that the Ponte pick should not be interpreted as a signal that the state will privatize its corrections system.

“The governor is not going to turn any of the existing facilities into private prisons,” said Dan Demeritt, LePage’s communications director.

However, the governor didn’t close the door on allowing private prisons in the state, a prospect that has met resistance from groups like the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which both say private prisons are not suitable economic development tools and ultimately increase prisoner recidivism rates.

“He (LePage) is kind of inching his way into this privatization business,” said Jim Bergin, with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

He added, “When you talk about privatizing incarceration, it’s about making money and it’s not about saving taxpayers money.”

Ponte’s current employer, Corrections Corp., is a publicly-held company that reported $1.7 billion in revenues last quarter. It has been looking to build a private prison in Milo.

Maine law currently prohibits state inmates from being housed in private prisons. However, LePage has expressed a willingness to change the law. Additionally, Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Piscataquis, has submitted a bill request that would allow the construction and operation of private prisons.

Thomas’ bill has yet to clear the revisor’s office.

The Tennessee-based CCA has also hired a newly-formed lobbying firm to represent its interests in Augusta. The firm, Mitchell Tardy Government Affairs, is run by Joshua Tardy, the former Republican House minority leader from Newport, and Jim Mitchell, a Democratic lobbyist.

CCA also contributed $25,000 to LePage’s election campaign through a contribution to the Republican Governors Association. In 2010, the company spent more than $730,000 lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  

Demeritt said Ponte’s CCA connection is eclipsed by his experience in the public sector. According to his resume, Ponte has worked for public corrections systems in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Tennessee.

Ponte also worked as the jail chief for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department in Memphis, Tenn., between 2001 and 2004. According to documents from the U.S. Department of Justice, the facility was sued by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for a host of human rights violations between 2000 and 2002.

The case led to a judge holding Shelby’s sheriff and mayor in contempt of court for failing to cooperate in the investigation. The violations appear to have occurred under Shelby’s chief jailer Marron Hopkins, who Ponte ultimately replaced.

Demeritt said Ponte was hired in Tennessee to help clean up the prison’s issues, which was confirmed by Chip Washington, a spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.

Ponte is not named in the DOJ’s settlement document, but Hopkins is.

Ponte’s nomination will have to be confirmed by the Legislature. Democratic leadership on Monday released a joint statement saying they were troubled by LePage’s pick, particularly if the state allows a private prison in Milo.

“While we were pleased to learn that the governor disavowed any plans to privatize the state’s correction system, we are concerned about his suggestion that the state attract private prisons as part of an economic development strategy, especially because it may pose a conflict for Ponte, who worked at one of the most prominent private prison companies in the country,” said House minority leader Emily Cain, D-Orono.

Demeritt acknowledged Ponte owns some stock in CCA through his retirement plan.

“It’s really a minor investment,” Demeritt said. “If the state does engage in any business with CCA, we’d look at what we have to do to remain appropriate with respect to dealing with a private company.”

Demeritt described Ponte’s interest in the post as a “major coup” for the administration because of his extensive experience. Ponte currently works and lives in Nevada, but his wife recently took a teaching job in Massachusetts.

If confirmed, Ponte’s selection could heighten the debate over private prisons, the proliferation of which nationally has been accompanied by increased scrutiny over their effectiveness, oversight and safety.

Arizona has 11 private prisons. The system was recently the subject of a investigative report by the Arizona Republic. The report showed CCA’s connections to Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration and how it’s poised to capitalize on Arizona’s new immigration law. CCA operates six prisons in Arizona, three of which house inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

CCA’s proposed Milo facility would be built for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and also house immigration inmates for ICE.

Bergin, with the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition, said the private prisons make money by cutting expenses such as food and personnel, thereby creating a dangerous environment for inmates.

Bergin also said the prisons ultimately stymie economic development in communities because businesses don’t want to move to communities that have them.

“These communities essentially create penal colonies,” he said.

CCA said the Milo prison would create 300 jobs for the community.

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