Leader Blues

Friday, January 09, 2009

EDITORIAL >>No private prisons

The career of a bad idea is almost limitless if you can persuade yourself that its failures are either accidental or incidental. The Arkansas legislature seems bound to repeat that error with privately run prisons.

Penitentiary businesses were among the early privatization schemes that began to crop up a quarter-century ago. Private correctional companies could take over your prisons and run them better at huge savings to the taxpayers, the theory went.

The Cadillac of the private prison companies was Wackenhut Corp., which was run for a while by Terrell Don Hutto, the head of Arkansas prisons back in the mid-1970s.

It never made any sense unless you subscribed to the hoary idea that government should always be run like a business. If that were true, why not just make government programs private businesses and be done with it? If a business can run a prison more cheaply than the government it has to cut costs some way, right? So you have fewer guards, lower the standards, pay them less, provide lower quality food and medical care or, better still, practice all of those strategies.

So appealing was the idea and so fast the growth of the prison population and the costs that the legislature and Gov. Mike Huckabee decided to do it. They contracted with Wackenhut to run a couple of new prisons at Newport. Conditions deteriorated, and the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the scandalous conditions in the prisons. So the state eventually backed out of the deal and took over the prisons again.

Now Emerald Companies, a Louisiana business, wants to run some Arkansas prisons and says it can do it for $52 per day per inmate, in contrast to the $57 a day it costs the state. The legislature’s Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Committee jumped at it this week and voted to prepare legislation to privatize prisons.

The state Board of Correc-tions has repeatedly warned legislators of the obvious: To make prisons profitable, a company has to sharply reduce security, hire people without qualifications, cut health care and then — the real key — cherry pick the best prisoners they want to take care of and leave the state with the worst. The state has to take custody of them all, from the psychotic killers to the hot-check writers.

It won’t work and it shouldn’t be tried again. Fortunately, Gov. Beebe, who has been around through it all, says privatization was always a lousy idea and he won’t go along with it. It would be a good use of his veto pen. —Ernie Dumas