Surprising stand by Lamontagne - He's opposed to prison privatization

By and / Monitor staff

July 15, 2012 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne is a fan of privatization - but not when it comes to New Hampshire's prisons.

After the Republican Executive Council voted last week to continue Democratic Gov. John Lynch's push to explore prison privatization, Lamontagne spoke in opposition to the idea during a debate Thursday. He argued prisoners "may be incarcerated because they're found to be criminals, but these are human beings who by force of government action, enforcement of criminal laws, are now being incarcerated for some period of time."

"I think it's important that we make sure that, as a state, we have the proper, humane treatment given to these incarcerated individuals, our prisoners," Lamontagne said. "And unless you can show me a substantial savings, a maintenance of quality in a privately-run prison, I would not support privatization of prisons."

Beth D'Ovidio, spokeswoman for the State Employees' Association, was surprised that Lamontagne's position aligns with the public-sector union, which has started the website to oppose privatization.

"We're certainly surprised because of the comments he has made about his support for privatization," D'Ovidio said. Highlighting the Department of Transportation, Lamontagne said at an event last month that "there are a number of areas of state government where we should be looking to the private sector, not government, in performing those functions."

"I'm going to privatize those things that should be privatized. Nonessential government services should be privatized," Lamontagne said. "That's going to jumpstart the economy."

But Lamontagne said Friday that "whenever the state uses the force and power of state government to incarcerate individuals, it's a difference in kind than other types of governmental services."

"I'm informed by my pro-life position to say we have to care for human lives to the extent we possibly can," Lamontagne said.

Lamontagne said the state employees union "clearly only has one interest, and that is the preservation of the economic status of its members."

"I don't believe, while we may end up at the same position, that we do so for the same reason," he said.

Lynch said in his 2011 budget address that "the cost of our corrections system is not sustainable," specifically noting that "the age of the Concord state prison makes it inefficient to run." The state issued a request for proposals, and four companies have submitted bids to build and potentially operate prisons here.

"The governor thinks we need to look at different options, including various forms of public/private partnerships to ensure we can meet the future needs of our corrections system," Lynch's spokesman, Colin Manning, wrote in an April email.

Democratic candidates Maggie Hassan and Jackie Cilley have said they oppose privately-run prisons.

"There is evidence from privatization efforts in other states that it results in lower standards and does not serve public safety interests," Hassan's spokesman said in a statement.

Lamontagne's Republican challenger, Kevin Smith, said he would wait to decide whether to support the effort until the study approved by the Executive Council last week determines the quality of service and cost-effectiveness of a private prison system.

"But I'm certainly open to it, and I definitely want to look at that study when it comes out to see if it's the right direction to go in," Smith said.

In the Republican-controlled Legislature, a bill to continue a legislative committee tasked with developing a privatization plan died in the Senate this year after passing the House. Andy Sanborn, a state senator from Henniker during the 2011-2012 session, was a co-sponsor of the bill. 

Sanborn said privatizing the state prison system could save "50 cents on the dollar." He was "honestly surprised" by Lamontagne's position, adding "I don't agree that other states or privatization companies treat inmates any differently than the state of New Hampshire does."

"I firmly believe it's something that we have to look at," Sanborn said.