Bill to block private prisons clears first hurdle

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 13-5 Feb. 28 to pass HB 443 blocking for-profit prison firms from taking over the corrections system. The bill goes to the House floor soon with the support of Democratic leaders.

Committee chair Laura Pantelakos introduced an amendment to let the state outsource inmates displaced by fire or flooding into any available beds in an emergency. It passed 18-0 and addressed a major concern of Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn in his recent public hearing testimony. 

“This takes care of emergency situations,” Pantelakos told her committee. “I do not think New Hampshire should ever privatize its prisons. These people (in prison) are fathers and mothers and children. When they are put in private prisons they get nothing.” 

The state constitution calls for rehabilitating prisoners, Pantelakos added, “and that does not happen in private prisons.” 

Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, broke with the House Republican caucus in supporting the bill based on his experience as a former jail superintendent.

“I once had to move 180 pre-trial inmates to other jails in an emergency,” Charron said, “and the warden should be able to do that. I also privatized our medical department and saved money. But I oppose (full) privatization. Period.” 

The budget trailer bill two years ago required the state to seek bids from private vendors to build and either manage or lease prison space back to the state. Those offers arrived this summer, and a consulting report comparing the bids was due Feb. 28. Governor and Council are still free to approve a contract with one of the vendors, although new Gov. Maggie Hassan is on record opposing prison privatization. 

Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, said the state wields “awesome power” when it takes away someone’s freedom. It should give that task only to people in the chain of command reporting to the governor. 

“Our corrections officers take an oath to the State of New Hampshire,” Cushing said. “That’s different from an oath to Corrections Corporation of America. They have a perverse incentive to fill the beds. We should figure out how to keep people out of prison in the first place and drive down prison costs.” 

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, told the committee HB 443 is premature at least until the findings of the privatization study come out. 

“I support the amendment because it makes a terrible bill slightly better,” Vaillancourt said. “But blocking privatization before you have the report is putting the cart before the horse.”

Vaillancourt said he respects prisoners as much as anyone on the Criminal Justice Committee, judging by his bill this year to give them earned time credits for improving themselves. 

“I want to make their lives better,” Vaillancourt said. “But I don’t want to close the door to make things more efficient.” 

The MGT consulting firm has been working on a long-delayed $171,000 report about the competing for-profit prison vendors. Former Gov. John Lynch said last year that study would remain confidential to avoid disclosing proprietary company information. 

Furthermore, Lynch said, to release those findings would violate state law requiring secrecy in the bid review, acceptance and contract negotiation process.

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 603-620-7946