State should lock door on for-profit prison plans

A long-awaited study on privatizing the New Hampshire prison system was due, and then overdue, on Oct. 15. Officials now hope to see a report by mid-November from the consulting firm MGT Associates on the merits of four competing offers to build and manage a for-profit, co-ed prison or rent it back to the state.    

Linda Hodgdon, the commissioner of administrative services, promised July 11 to release this study. If one of the vendors wins a contract for maybe two decades of services in the $3 billion range, this state would be the first to substantially privatize its corrections system. That would be a tragic mistake. 

Gov. John Lynch vowed to withhold the consulting report during a recent meeting with opponents of privatization. Officials would present their own review instead, based in part on the secret advice of the MGT consulting firm. It was the sole bidder on a $171,000 contract to compare the for-profit prison proposals on an apples-to-apples basis. 

I’d like to read that report by outside experts, led by George Vose, the former commissioner of corrections for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There is reason to fear it will slant in favor of the private prison industry. Vose sits on the board of one of the worst prison vendors, Community Education Centers. 

That company manages 5,000 halfway house offenders at any given time in New Jersey and allowed an astonishing 452 escapes in 2011. The New York Times published a recent expose on CEC as a crowded, violent gulag that profits from warehousing people with unmet constitutional rights. 

The Times said most inmates test positive for substance abuse, and most officers are undertrained, overworked, underpaid, inexperienced short-timers. 

I spoke with Vose this summer, and he downplayed his clout at Community Education Centers and in New Hampshire corrections. 

“We’re not being asked to evaluate if prison privatization would be good policy for New Hampshire,” he explained. “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.” 

Vose was vice president of operations at the for-profit prison vendor CiviGenics from 2002 to 2009, which agreed to repay $3.4 million in overcharges to Massachusetts in 2007. Former state auditor Joseph DeNucci had sought $10.2 million in excessive management fees and collected $3.5 million of it from Spectrum Health Systems, the company CiviGenics did its disputed work for. 

Under Vose, CiviGenics compiled its own record of warehousing not unlike the company it merged with, yes, Community Education Centers.

The bidders to take over most of the New Hampshire prison system include the GEO Group, Management & Training Corp., Corrections Corporation of America and the New Hampshire Hunt Justice Group. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, they had spent $130,000 in this state on lobbyists as of mid-August. 

Widespread accounts from around the country suggest these players would bring their own set of baggage. Rigorous studies show for-profit prisons are no cheaper than public prisons, and often more expensive, when you count all the hidden costs. 

Lynch could lawfully rush a 20-year prison takeover contract to the lame-duck executive councilors before he leaves in January. I hope not. They might approve it in time to hand a mess to the November election winners. Gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne and Maggie Hassan are on record opposing private prisons. 

Lynch has worked for a better idea, downsizing prisons and using the savings for community corrections. That strategy has cut budgets, crime and recidivism rates in a number of states, according to the National Association of the States. 

Lynch knows lawmakers would never bond $300 million to build a state-owned co-ed prison, but they might OK $50 million for a women’s prison.

 New Hampshire Legal Assistance has filed a very winnable class-action lawsuit against the women’s prison, and the courts in due time will order the state to rehabilitate women aggressively. 

Why wait until then? Why bind Lamontagne or Hassan to a flawed lame-duck policy of for-profit prisons they would both have a mandate to veto? Let the state build a women's prison. And own it. 

Chris Dornin is a retired Statehouse reporter and founder of CCJR.