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Private prisons will remain in discussion

Private prison companies seeking new contracts in Wyoming appear sidelined, as lawmakers postpone a final decision on the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s fate until repairs are tested.

But an advocate opposing private prisons said the companies will remain just over the horizon, given the potential financial opportunities in Wyoming’s correctional challenges. Among the problems Wyoming faces is a crumbling penitentiary, built on shifting soil.

Two companies lobbied top lawmakers at the Joint Appropriations Committee meeting July 18 in Rawlins for potential contracts. CoreCivic and GEO offered services ranging from new prison construction to ongoing operational management.

Lawmakers didn’t seem too interested in a private prison at this point, Rep. Don Burkhardt (R, HD-15, Rawlins) said. The companies had not given lawmakers prices to compare. “I have not heard hard numbers from either company,” he said.

But lawmakers showed enough curiosity about the idea of a future private contract to ensure the prison companies will stay interested, said Sabrina King, the American Civil Liberties Union representative in Wyoming. Her group opposes private prisons.

“I think that as long as the conversation about the prison is there, the specter of private prisons will be there,” she said.

GEO and CoreCivic representatives pitched their companies as stress-free alternatives to housing Wyoming’s lawbreakers. The kind of headache the Legislature currently faces — with its only maximum security facility falling apart — would be avoided by contracting a private company to build or run a prison, they said.

“You wouldn’t be in the position that you’re in today if you’d done [a private company] six or seven years ago,” Shayn March, Vice President of Finance for GEO, told the lawmakers. “You want to transfer those risks to the private sector, you don’t want to have those on your plate,” he said. “You have hard enough jobs as it is.”

A new look at the old pen

Lawmakers however chose to bet on a new engineering firm’s assessment that the shifting of soils beneath the prison’s foundations may be slowing. For now, the committee recommended to Gov Matt Mead that the state drain water from the building’s foundations, and see if predictions of soil stabilization hold true.

GEO has done construction work at the WSP for Wyoming. CoreCivic has a contract with the Wyoming Department of Corrections to run a residential reentry center, often known as a “halfway house,” in Cheyenne. CoreCivic also has a contract with the state to house inmates if the penitentiary suffers a catastrophic failure.

Lawmakers said that if repairs don’t work out they’ll need to make a farther-reaching decision with the prison. At the same time, Wyoming’s inmate population continues to rise because of longer sentencing, Wyoming Department of Corrections’ director Bob Lampert told the committee. If rising incarceration rates aren’t curbed through changes in criminal justice policy, he said, Wyoming will need to build space for more prison beds — regardless of how repairs to the penitentiary work out.

Introducing profit to Wyoming’s prison could upset essential elements of the criminal justice system, the ACLU’s King wrote lawmakers after the Rawlins meeting. “The justice system should never run on a profit motive,” she wrote. A prison contract could include “minimum occupancy guarantees,” necessitating that Wyoming put a certain number of people in prison to maintain its contract, she wrote. Such a deal would jeopardize efforts at criminal justice reform, she said.

Read a feature story on the challenges facing Wyoming’s correctional system

King cited numerous examples of poor performance by private companies. These included a lawsuit the ACLU filed in 2010 over an “extraordinary level of violence” at a prison in Idaho run by CoreCivic. The ACLU settled after the company promised to increase staffing. Later, the ACLU sued again, and won, when it became apparent the company was falsifying records of its promised improvements, she wrote.

At the Rawlins committee meeting, King said the state should focus on repairing the prison and pursuing broad criminal justice reform.

A former correctional officer and current union leader also spoke against contracting with private prisons. The companies have poor track records for transparency and are less safe work environments for correctional officers, said Dee Garrison, president of the Wyoming Association of Correctional Employees.

“The purpose of having a prison is to protect the inmates, protect the public and to hold your obligation to their human rights and their dignity,” Garrison said. In contrast, the purpose of a private company is to make money, she said.

Lobbying efforts

Representatives of the private prison companies approached lawmakers in a subcommittee, Burkhardt said. It has become common knowledge that Wyoming is doing something with its penitentiary, he said. Thus, “you get groups that want to make proposals.”

On May 25, the two prison companies’ representatives met with the subcommittee, legislative leadership, the directors of the WDOC, and the State Construction Department. The subcommittee meeting was not public, said legislative aide Don Richards. At that meeting, the private companies were invited to make their pitches at the public meeting in Rawlins, according to a Legislative Service Office memo.

In Rawlins, lawmakers expressed interest in various contracts with the companies. Rep. Tom Walters (R, HD-38, Casper) asked both companies if they would consider maintenance and/or operating contracts for a penitentiary, in addition to construction.

“We would be happy to build and lease the facility and let the state operate it if that’s what you chose to do,” said GEO’s March. “But we also like to operate. We think you can get best value for money if we provide the operations.”

During her testimony, CoreCivic representative Lucibeth Mayberry said her company could help Wyoming construct a new prison, but was not interested in running it. “We really feel like this is one where we would look at real estate only,” she said.

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Rep. Albert Sommers (R, HD-20, Pinedale) pressed her on whether the company would be interested in operating the facility.

It’s a “very different conversation,” Mayberry said. “It invites a whole different level of scrutiny and a whole different level of discussion.”

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected], follow him @AndrewGraham88

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