State picks prison outsourcing consultant

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR

Supporters of prison privatization won a big victory July 11. The Executive Council voted 5-0 to approve a $171,000 contract with a consulting firm to review the bids from four profit-making vendors hoping to incarcerate up to 1,700 New Hampshire inmates. MGT of America, a Texas-based company, has until Oct. 5 to issue its in-depth report on the pros and cons of each proposal to take over most of the work of corrections.  

The possible vendors include the GEO Group, Management & Training Corp., Corrections Corp. of America and NH Hunt Justice Group. They have offered to build and run a men’s prison or a co-ed prison. 

Linda Hodgon, commissioner of administrative services, said MGT was the only bidder on the consultancy project, and it will help officials to ascertain the facts in 60 boxes of complicated bidding paperwork.

“The consultant doesn’t decide anything,” Hodgon said. “They will help us evaluate the facts. We told them to be very objective and not to come in with any kind of bias.”

Bill Wrenn, the New Hampshire corrections commissioner, said George Vose, the project leader for MGT, has run private prisons as well as the corrections departments in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

“His opinion is really neutral,” Wrenn said. “We need their help to make sure the financial data supports the operations plans. The numbers have to be legitimate and make sense.”

Councilor Dan St. Hilaire asked officials a series of tough questions before backing the contract.

“I’m going to vote for it, reluctantly,” he told Gov. John Lynch. “If you’re sure they’re looking just at the numbers and not policy. And as long as they are impartial.”

“I agree,” said Lynch.

Executive Councilor Ray Wieczorek asked if the state could possibly do the $171,000 project in-house. Hodgdon said officials have put in thousands of extra hours already, and they lack the expertise needed. 

“I’m comforted to have another set of eyes coming in,” she added. “You’ll get better information.”

Vose may have neglected to tell state officials he brings at least the appearance of a conflict of interest to the task. In a phone interview July 12, he told me he still serves on the board of Community Education Centers, a large profit-making halfway house company based in New Jersey. 

He won that appointment in 2009, according to a Community Education Services press release still available on line. CEC had just acquired CiviGenics, the private prison contractor Vose had served as vice president for operations since 2002.

The New York Times published a recent investigative series describing Community Education Services halfway houses as crowded, violent, sexually abusive, porous, gang-ridden and drug-infested. The employees are underpaid, undertrained, scared and demoralized, the Times also reported, and those factors have caused high turnover and understaffing. 

The newspaper said 452 inmates escaped from these facilities in 2011. 73 percent of inmates tested positive for recent drug use after a surprise urine sample collection in August, 2009.  

Asked if he could be objective about the choices for New Hampshire, Vose said he could. He added that he is not an employee of Community Education Centers and that his task here is limited.  

 “We’re not being asked to evaluate if prison privatization would be good policy for New Hampshire,” he said. “We’re not a political advocacy group for anybody. Our role is to evaluate proposals based on specific criteria. And I’m only one member of a team with five people on this project.”

MGT was the sole firm that answered a request for bids from would-be consultants. Executive Councilor Chris Sununu asked why.

“We talked to others,” said Hodgon. “Two needed a lot more time to look at our RFP. One was unhappy with a low-bid process.”

According to the contract signed June 28 by Rosemary Wiant of MGT and Joseph Bouchard, assistant commissioner of administrative services, the other firms were Northpointe, Pulitzer Bogard & Associates, Voohris Robertson Justice Services, Garrison Consulting, CJIS Group, and AECOM.

Councilor Chris Sununu asked for a time line on the next phase. 

“This is really critical to the state,” he said. “It keeps getting stretched and stretched. I’m afraid we’ll still be pushing this in the spring.”

Councilor Ray Burton asked about the impact on the 500-bed Berlin prison in his district. It was built so its shops, dining hall, kitchen, infirmary, library, offices, visiting room and classrooms could support a second already-designed, 500-bed wing in the future.

“Berlin is not a factor in any of this,” Wrenn said.

Burton said he is in no rush to privatize prisons. He has seen first hand the impact of privatization on the families of Vermont prisoners outsourced to Kentucky. 

“I want to be fully informed every step of the way if this goes forward,” he said. “Will the consultant’s report be public? “

Officials said it would.

“Would Maine and Vermont be involved?” Burton asked.

Lynch said Gov. Paul LePage and former Gov. John Baldacci of Maine have both supported the concept of  a northern New England facility. 

“$171,000 is a small amount compared with the scope of a (privatization) contract over 20 years,” Lynch added.

Councilor Dan St. Hillaire said he also wants the state to look at building and bonding its own prison. 

“It is,” Lynch said.