ALERT: NH Senate Votes to Block Legislative Study of Prison Privatization

NH Senate votes to Block Legislative Study of Prison Privatization
By Chris Dornin, CCJR Founder

The NH Senate voted today, May 23, to kill SB 376 to extend the life of the prison privatization study committee, with a privatization plan due Nov. 1 at just the right time to become a big election issue. As passed by the House, the bill empowered this committee to review all the bids from profit-making prison vendors before they are accepted by the Department of Corrections. The Senate action moves the struggle over jailing inmates to the Executive Council, which would have to agree or disagree on any negotiated contract to build a men’s prison or a co-ed prison.

A strong coalition against New Hampshire prison privatization in any form has mobilized in reply to last years’ law requiring the Department of Corrections to issue a request for bids to let profit-making firms take over the job of housing, watching and treating inmates. The Department is still evaluating and scoring offers from four possible vendors to build and manage a large men’s prison or a co-ed prison. Nobody sought to construct and run just a women’s prison because the vendors saw no profit in it. The census is far too small.

Each of the complex bids covers a medium sized coffee table with stacks of paperwork about a foot high, according to prison officials. They say the review process has kept a dozen top brass at Department pretty occupied for the last two months. An outside consultant will do an independent fiscal analysis of the privatization bids, if the Executive Council approves a contract to pay these advisors. Vendors have a June 1 deadline to submit their bids to take on this consulting role.. The state would need additional time to review the proposals from the would-be consultants.

The New Hampshire groups fighting a take-over of prison services include Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, the American Friends Service Program, the prison chapter of the State Employees Association, AFSCME (another national union with corrections employees), the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women’s Prison Advisory Board, New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Council on Churches. The League of Women Voters is closely monitoring the activities of this informal alliance and has written a scathing report on prison privatization. So has NH Legal Assistance. So has the Friends Program.  So has the women’s prison advisory panel. We’ll be posting those reports on the CCJR website in the next few weeks.

Half a dozen national programs are lending their support, spearheaded by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit agency similar to CCJR but older, bigger and better established. In the Public Interest and Grassroots Leadership are two other key organizations. All these players have held three long conference calls to coordinate strategy and stay abreast of a fast moving issue. The next conference call is set for June 6 at 2 p.m. 

Chris Dornin of CCJR, Arnie Alpert of the Friends Program and Brian Hawkins of the State Employees Association are working together to cover the State House advocacy part of the campaign. Until last week we thought the main challenge would come from the legislative prison study committee chaired by Rep. Dan McGuire. It met last summer and fall and published a preliminary report in December recommending the department ship 1,200 inmates out of state. That option is gone now, unless the House adds this dubious idea to some Senate bill. That move is entirely possible, if not likely, given the strong animosity between the two chambers and the combative style of House leadership.

The House Finance Committee last week approved a bill to extend the deadline for the study committee’s final report until Nov. 1 and let it inspect the actual bids the vendors have submitted, even before a contract is negotiated. The Senate said no to that unprecedented access to a highly sensitive process. It is illegal under current law, and for good reason. Past legislatures have seen fit to build a firewall to keep politicians from meddling in the bidding and contracting. The risk of corruption was and always is too grave. Big bucks are involved. Today the five-member Executive Council provides the only oversight authorized. It approves or disapproves all major contracts.

We learned this month that Gov. John Lynch may be pushing for a large Northern New England private prison that would accept inmates from Maine, Vermont and possibly Massachusetts. All five executive councilors expect to see a proposed contract by the end of the summer. They say it might well be for that multi-state prison. Or it might only cover pharmacy services, nursing services or the sex offender treatment program. Bids came back this winter to privatize all those functions separately from building a new facility. No contracts have been negotiated yet.

ACTION NEEDED:  It’s not too early for friends of more humane criminal laws to start talking to their executive councilors and the governor. The battle is brewing quickly. Stay tuned.