Gary hopes to privatize county jail

November 24, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

County executive-elect John G. Gary said yesterday that he wants to make the proposed detention center in Glen Burnie one of the first privately run county jails in Maryland.

Mr. Gary said that when he takes office next month, one of his priorities will be to draft a request for bids from private corporations to operate the $27 million detention center. The purpose in privatizing the jail, he said, is to take advantage of the cost savings that companies specializing in jail operation have said they can deliver.

"All we do is deliver them [inmates] to their doorstep," Mr. Gary said. "The rest of it, they do."

Mr. Gary said the fact that union employees operate the Jennifer Road jail makes it unlikely that privatization would be applied to that facility.

The county detention center already contracts with private companies to provide inmate transportation to court, as well as food, medical, and commissary services. But turning operation of the jail over to a private company would be new in Anne Arundel.

Although privatization has been tried at the state level at juvenile facilities such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel would become only the second local government in Maryland to privatize some jail operations. Prince George's County is receiving bids to operate a 384-bed detention center expansion. The winning company will build the jail with its own money and sign a 30-year contract with the county to operate the facility. At the end of the contract, the county will assume ownership of the building.

Mr. Gary said he wanted to get started immediately on drafting the request for proposals, even before construction money for the jail has been approved by the County Council or the General Assembly, because he would like the private corporation to participate in the design of the project.

"They're saying, 'Put the high-tech stuff in there when you build it, because you lower your operating costs.' Well, that sounds good to me," Mr. Gary said.

The 18 companies that operate jails and prisons in the United States usually prefer to be involved in design and construction of the facility, said Charles Thomas, a University of Florida criminologist and expert on prison privatization. The reason is simple: About 75 percent of a jail's operating costs come from employee salaries and fringe benefits. So, the fewer employees, the less a jail costs to run.

"The number of employees is very much determined by facility design," Dr. Thomas said. "Some designs are very labor-intensive and some designs are not very labor-intensive."

Dr. Thomas said that overall, jail privatization has been effective since the first contract was signed in 1984 for the jail in Hamilton County, Tenn. As of June 30, there were 84 contracts awarded to private companies to operate jails and prisons in the country, most of them at the state and federal levels.

According to his research, private companies can provide savings of 15 percent to 25 percent in construction costs. Private companies have been able to deliver savings of approximately 15 percent on operating costs, which account for 90 percent of the cost of a jail over a 20-year period.

For example, in 1985, Dade County, Fla., hired Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private jail contractor in the country, to handle its corrections system, which has about 700 inmates, the approximate number of Anne Arundel County's jail population. Officials there told Dr. Thomas they estimated that the contract was saving them at least $500,000 to $750,000 a year.

The second-largest operator of jails in the country, Wackenhut Corrections Corp., already has a contract with Anne Arundel to transport inmates from the jail to court and would be likely to bid on the Glen Burnie contract.

Not everyone shares Dr. Thomas' enthusiasm. Stephen Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association, headquartered in Hagerstown, said his organization opposes privatizing jails that are run by local government.

"First of all, they have to prove it can be done with less cost to the community," he said.

Then there is the issue of whether private companies should be responsible for incarcerating citizens, he said. "Is it corrections for profit? Is it a government responsibility? There are all sorts of questions to answer."

Civil rights advocates have worries, too.

"The danger is that private corporations will try to cut corners and deny inmates their constitutional rights," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "As long as private jails are held to the same standards, it's all right. But it's more difficult to ensure they are held to the same standards."

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