Columns » Max Brantley

The private prison swamp

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State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) last week exposed a plan to begin privatizing Arkansas prisons without going through the legislature. Smells like a swamp to me.

The occasion was a legislative committee meeting at which Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley made a rare appearance. Elliott asked her about rumors of prison privatizing. It's more than rumor, Kelley was forced to admit. Negotiations are underway for a scheme to sidestep real legislative oversight.

The Correction Department wouldn't contract with the private prison operator LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, La. Bradley and Drew counties would enter a contract with LaSalle to run a "regional jail." It would be more jail than the counties need. But the counties would strike a deal with the Correction Department to hold 500 or so state prisoners.

This is a bad idea. Prison conditions aren't great under the best of circumstances. Counties have generally done worse. Private operators of state prison beds, in Arkansas's past experience, were execrable.

State law allows state contracts with counties to operate regional jails. But the counties admit this deal only works with state prison participation. That's where the money for LaSalle comes in.

Google LaSalle and you'll find the usual concerns with private prisons, including lawsuits over inmate deaths at the Bi-State Justice Center in Texarkana. There's also an allegation this year of underpayment of guards in Texas. Rehabilitation? You don't get much of that for $30 per inmate per day.

The smell of politics is unmistakable. The prison industry gives big sums to politicians. In return, they reap big profits. How do they make money while spending less per inmate? It's not from big investments in decent conditions, higher paid staff and the added-cost services that might discourage recidivism.

Also, Jon Gilmore, a former deputy staff chief and campaign manager for Governor Hutchinson is now in the political consulting lobbying business. He relies heavily on his gubernatorial ties. The website of his political consulting firm describes him as continuing "to serve Governor Hutchinson in a consulting role as his Chief Strategist on political affairs."

On his home page, right below a picture of Gilmore and the governor heading to a helicopter, Gilmore lists his lobbying clients. They include LaSalle Corrections.

Private prisons are about profits, not criminal justice reform. Billy McConnell, head warden at LaSalle, is a former nursing home owner who began building and then operating prisons. He's been angling for Arkansas business at least since 2015, when then-Sen. Eddie Joe Williams was pushing his lockups as a solution for lack of space. At that time, McConnell claimed his prisons had rehabilitation and re-entry programs, but he also told KARK-TV, Channel 4, "We don't sentence people. We don't arrest people. We don't release people. We just house people."

In the current Arkansas political climate, which is short on human concern, that might be enough.

There is an alternative. Hutchinson's Democratic opponent, Jared Henderson, announced a criminal justice plan this week that included a 20 percent reduction in prison population, in favor of community sentencing and more emphasis on re-entry and drug treatment. That would save Arkansas more prison construction and perhaps eliminate the need to provide windfall profits to a lobbying client of the governor's former campaign manager.

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