Lawmakers will consider private prison company to build a new state pen

Post Date: April 10, 2017

Seen via the Casper Star Tribune

Wyoming may enlist a private prison company to build a new state penitentiary if lawmakers opt against repairing the existing facility, which is cracking and shifting due to the unstable ground below it.

Critics blasted the idea of contracting with a for-profit prison industry, considering Wyoming’s past troubles when sending inmates out of state. They also called it fiscally unwise.

The 15-year-old Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, home to about 650 inmates, was built over an old lake bed and is experiencing significant structural problems. Repair work to address those issues forced prison officials to put inmates on lockdown for almost two days in December.

Wyoming House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican from Casper, said he recently met with representatives of CoreCivic, which is the new brand of Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator.

He said they discussed the potential of an agreement in which a private contractor builds and maintains the prison. The Wyoming Department of Corrections would operate the facility, he said. 

“I think we ought to have all those options on the table,” he said. “It’s a lease-purchase similar to you pay rent on it until you own it.”

But Sabrina King of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said she is concerned about mission creep — that a private company would push to expand its role into the operations of the penitentiary.

“There’s no way a private prison company is going to build the state’s prison and just hand it over,” she said. “It’s not going to happen.”

A CoreCivic spokesman reached out to the Star-Tribune for this story, but the newspaper was unable to complete the interview.

Delayed decision

A task force of lawmakers toured the prison and studied its structural problems last year. The majority wanted to repair, not replace, the prison.

But during the 2017 session in Cheyenne, there wasn’t consensus in Wyoming Legislature over whether to repair or replace the facility, said Rep. Don Burkhart, a Rawlins Republican who sat on the prison task force.

Nor have there been any firm estimates of how much each option would cost, he said.

Numbers have ranged from $87 million for repair to $400 million for a new prison on different land, he said.

The Legislature this winter ordered another report, and another panel of legislators – the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee – will meet in Rawlins in mid-July to review it.

The JAC will draft a recommendation for the penitentiary’s future that the whole Legislature will consider in 2018, said Burkhart, who is also on JAC and is the third-ranking Republican in the House.

Private prisons

For a dozen years beginning in the late 1990s, Wyoming sent inmates out of state, mostly to private prisons.

The transfers helped ease overcrowding in Wyoming prisons. Around the same time, the then-state penitentiary, a quarter mile from the current prison, experienced structural failures and was closed. 

In a 2004 prison riot at the Corrections Corporation of America-owned Crowley County Correctional Facility, inmates set fires, smashed toilets and sinks, destroyed appliances and searched files for names of sex offenders and informants. About 120 prisoners from Wyoming were incarcerated in the Colorado detention center. Officials said no one from Wyoming was injured.

That same year, two Wyoming inmates escaped the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas. The private GEO Group owned the prison at the time.

Cheyenne attorney Linda Burt worked for the Wyoming ACLU in those years. She received calls from prisoners reporting that they had been victims of violence and sexual assault. She felt private corrections officers were not qualified. Private prison salaries are poor and attract a low-quality pool of applicants, she said.

Burt said the companies cut corners where they can.

“I think it’s important to remember these people are working for a profit. They’re not going to be making (much of a) profit in building it,” she said. “I would be surprised after they build it that they would want to walk away from it. That’s where they make all their money.”

Corrections Corporation of America is the only private prison firm to contribute to Wyoming politicians. It donated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The last time the company sent checks to Wyoming campaigns was in 2002, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Two lawmakers currently serving in the Legislature received contributions from the company: $750 to Riverton Republican Eli Bebout, now the Senate president, and $250 to Jeff Wasserburger, a Republican from Gillette who was then a representative and is now a senator.

Costs

Lawmakers were criticized for not acting on the prison during the 2017 session. But Burkhart takes issue with that claim, saying in the 2017 session, the Legislature created a savings account for a new prison.

At least $40 million a year in state investment earnings will be swept into the account with a cap of $250 million, said Harshman, who sponsored the legislation.

Lawmakers also authorized the state to use up to $15 million from the rainy day fund in the case of a catastrophic collapse of the prison that would require moving inmates, Burkhart said.

“The feeling in the Legislature, the information we got, is we don’t think it’s in danger of imminent collapse,” said Harshman, the top Republican in the House.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, leader of the Democratic minority in the Legislature, voted against the new prison savings account, arguing that it put Wyoming down a path in which construction of a new prison would be inevitable.

She favors broad criminal justice reform in which nonviolent offenders can get more substance abuse treatment, parole and community assistance that she believes would decrease the incarceration rate and lead to more rehabilitation, she said.

But a bill before the Legislature that would have changed sentencing failed, partly due to county prosecutors’ objections.

Connolly, who is from Laramie, said the state should not go into business with private prisons. She doesn’t believe it would save money and the detention centers are rife with allegations of inhumane treatment of inmates, she said.

If the Legislature opts to build a new prison, she believes Wyoming should explore issuing bonds. The state could fetch a good interest rate, she said.

Lawmakers in the most recent session balked at a proposal, recommended by Gov. Matt Mead, to use bonds to fund prison repairs. 

“We have one of the best bond ratings in the country, and we are not using it,” Connolly said. “To me, it’s a foolish decision. It’s this notion that we should pay cash. Not that I think you can always make an analogy with personal (finances) when you’re talking about state government, but it’s this notion you’d never buy a home because of taking out a mortgage.”

Burkhart said that the state would have to come up with a yearly payment for the bondholders and state revenues are uncertain due to the energy crunch.

“Not knowing what the future holds, we may have to make drastic changes to pay the bonds,” he said.

Burkhart, however, said he is reserving judgment on private prisons until he gets more information. His first priority is making sure the prison stays in Rawlins, where it employs about 400 and is a boon to the local economy.

Harshman said that he expects lawmakers will examine bonding for a new prison. Paying a bondholder is similar to writing lease payment checks to a private prison company, he said.

“I don’t think bonding is off the table,” he said. “I think it’s all about timing and when we have to do this. I think everything is on the table.”