Business Review reports prison privatization all but dead for 2012, maybe longer

Prison privatization faces an uphill battle

From NH Business Review for Oct. 18, 2012

The plan to privatize New Hampshire's prison probably won't be approved by the Executive Council this year -- and will have a foe in the corner office next year, no matter who wins the gubernatorial race - putting the privatization process in jeopardy.

At least that was the consensus of the council at its Wednesday breakfast meeting in Concord.

MGT of America - the consultant that's evaluating financial and legal aspects of the proposals by four companies seeking to build, and perhaps run, the state's prison system - has asked for an extension of its $171,000 contract until mid-November, after the election.

The state needs MGT's report before it can issue its own report, which probably won't be completed until late November, estimated Linda Hodgdon, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, who is working on the state's report with the Department of Corrections.

That could leave it to a lame-duck Executive Council to take up the matter in December.

At that time, the councilors will have a report, not a contract, emphasized Hodgdon.

"It's not like anything else you've done," Hodgdon said, referring to the approval process. "There will be matrixes and good information." As for a contract, "maybe it will come to one, maybe not," she said.

"It's unlikely it's going to be resolved this year," said Gov. John Lynch. "We might want to meet with the consultant."

There are other matters as well. Lynch was hoping to convince the state of Vermont to send its 600 inmates to New Hampshire rather than to a private prison in the Midwest, but in order to factor those savings into any eventual cost, it might be necessary to negotiate with Vermont's governor.

Lynch has been a strong supporter of privatizing the state's prisons, but he is stepping down, and the two candidates seeking to replace him - Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan -- have each expressed opposition to the idea.

A hostile governor could simply refuse to put a private prison contract on the council's agenda, or override a council vote to approve a contract.

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu complained that current prison conditions were "horrible." He expressed hope that perhaps the council could "steamroll" a private prison contract through this year, but added that such a scenario wasn't likely.

"It pains me," said Lynch, who lamented that the cost of maintaining an old prison could be better spent elsewhere. "I agree with Chris. Something has to be done, but the state is never going to appropriate $250 million to build a new prison."

Arnie Alpert, New Hampshire coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee and an active opponent of prison privatization, said he was pleased with where the process is currently headed, but he wasn't about to go out and celebrate.

"We are glad that both candidates (for governor) express their opposition to the privatization of prisons," he said. "Hopefully, the delay and the change of administration will allow the state to turn around the process, and not begin with a contract before the needs are assessed."


© 2012, New Hampshire Business Review, 150 Dow St., Manchester, NH