Privatizing N.H. prisons in for a cooler reception

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
(Published in print: Thursday, December 6, 2012)

The Executive Council voted yesterday to continue studying privatizing the state’s prisons, but going private has lost its biggest supporters at the State House.

Incoming governor Maggie Hassan opposes putting inmate care in private hands, as does a majority of the next Executive Council. And Democrats, who have taken control of the House, haven’t shared their Republican counterparts’ appetite for privatization.

But partial privatization – allowing a private company to build a prison the state would run – may have support in at least the corner office.

Gov. John Lynch endorsed that approach in an interview this week with Monitor editors, saying it’s the states most expedient option for not only replacing the state’s inadequate prisons but also resolving a lawsuit over the shortcomings of the women’s prison.

That’s especially true, Lynch said, with a Legislature that’s been unwilling to spend the necessary $350 million to $400 million to build a new prison.

And in an email Tuesday, a spokesman for Hassan said a private-public partnership is an option she’d consider.

“Governor-Elect Hassan opposes allowing private entities to run New Hampshire’s prisons, as the track record of such arrangements in other states has not demonstrated success in terms of protecting taxpayer dollars while maintaining the highest level of public safety, ” wrote Marc Goldberg. “The Governor-Elect would consider the possibility of partnering with the private sector on prison construction only if the safety and security of our communities could be ensured along with clear savings to taxpayers.”

The state began investigating privatizing the state’s prisons last year at the request of Lynch and state lawmakers, who wondered whether going private would save the state money. Prison expenses are climbing and two prisons – the men’s in Concord and the women’s in Goffstown – are overcrowded and failing.

The state Department of Administrative Services and corrections officials sought proposals from private companies for three building projects:

A men’s prison with at least 1,500 beds; a women’s prison with at least 200 beds; and a third prison that would have separate bed space for men and women at one location.

The private companies were also given the option of building and running the new prisons, renovating the existing Concord prison and running it or building new prisons that the state would run.

The bids remain sealed while the state evaluates them, and state officials have declined to say if any companies offered to just build a prison the state would run.

A private consultant with corrections expertise, MGT of America, has been helping the state evaluate the bids since about July. Commissioner Linda Hodgdon of Administrative Services had hoped to give Lynch and executive councilors a written assessment and comparison of the bids by October.

Yesterday, Hodgdon told councilors that review won’t be done until the end of the year and asked the council to extend the contract with MGT through February at no extra cost.

She said doing so will give the state and the consultant time to finish their work and allow the consultant to stay on long enough to answer questions about the report.

That report will now go to a new governor and an Executive Council that’s gone from all Republicans to a Democratic majority. It’s likely to get a cooler reception.

New Councilors Colin Van Ostern, a Concord Democrat, and Chris Pappas, a Manchester Democrat, opposed privatizing prisons on the campaign trail. And they reiterated those concerns when reached this week.

“I start out opposed to the concept,” said Pappas. “I think it’s the responsibility of an elected official to have all the facts and figures on the table. So, I really need to be convinced otherwise before I get behind any scenario.”

Van Ostern agreed and said he did not yet know enough about the private-public partnership Lynch favors to comment on it specifically. Democrat Debora Pignatelli of Nashua could not be reached.

Councilor Ray Burton, a Bath Republican re-elected to his seat, said he’s glad the state is fully investigating all options of privatizing prisons. “We should have all the best information we can put our hands on,” he said. “But I’m not in any great hurry to rush off to privatization.”

Burton said he’d prefer to see the state build its own prison.

Councilor Chris Sununu, a Newfield’s Republican also re-elected to the council, said he’s a “strong proponent of doing the analysis” of privatizing prisons. And he considers the existing prisons “woeful, dangerous and beyond a point of reasonable deterioration.”

But Sununu is waiting to see what the report tells him about the pros and cons of privatizing. “The only way you can make a good decision is to have all the information at your disposal,” he said. “Then the governor, Executive Council and the Legislature can take up all aspects and go forward.”

Privatization in any form remains a nonstarter for the State Employees’ Association, which has led efforts to keep private companies out of corrections in the state.

Union President Diana Lacey said yesterday the union opposes any privatization of corrections, in part because it doesn’t believe a private company would stop at just building the prison.

They would get their foot in the door,” she said. “It’s a slippery slope.”

The union argues that private prison companies elsewhere are more interested in keeping prisons full – which earns profits – than rehabilitating prisoners for release.

And Lacey doesn’t take any comfort in a scenario where the state would maintain control of housing and rehabilitating inmates. “We will be tenants and totally at (the private company’s) will in terms of what would be built, how it would be maintained or with any major problems with the facility,” she said.

Like Burton, Lacey said the state should accept the financial responsibility of building its own prison.

While Lynch cited the pending lawsuit against the women’s prison as a reason to hire a private company to quickly build a new prison, Lacey saw the lawsuit as a trigger for the state to finally start appropriating the money for its own construction.

The state has a habit of not dealing with big issues until it gets faced with a lawsuit, ” she said. “That is when the New Hampshire Legislature steps up to the plate. The Legislature says, ‘We’ve got a bad decision (from the court) and now we have to act on it.’ The Legislature has (in the past) used court orders for making the right decisions.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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