Private companies press for bill to let state hire operator for women's prison Executives say money can be saved, profits made

March 20, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Private prison operators want a chance to build and run a women's prison at Jessup, corporate executives told a House committee yesterday.

Officers from four companies said they run prisons around the country, saving states as much as 15 percent, offering better buildings and programs and still earning a profit.

"We can design it, build it and run it, typically, cheaper than what states can do," said Kevin Ashburn, director of business development for Corrections Corp. of America.

He and other executives spoke in support of a bill that would allow the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to hire a company to build a new women's prison or manage one in an existing building.

Opponents, including labor unions representing correctional officers, say Maryland should not privatize prisons.

"Corrections is delivering justice," said Joshua Miller, an

economist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It would be analogous to privatizing our courts."

State officials might be trying to bring in privatization through the "back door" by hiring companies to handle inmate transportation, food and other services, said M. Kim Howard, president of the Maryland Correctional Law Enforcement Union.

With private companies running some juvenile detention centers and taking over state functions such as collection of child support payments, prisons are the next logical market, said the bill's sponsor, Anne Arundel County Del. Phillip D. Bissett, an Edgewater Republican.

During the joint hearing held by the House Judicial and Appropriations committees, some delegates questioned whether the companies would have to fire existing employees to save money on operating costs.

"I'm just worried about people's jobs," said Del. Mary A. Conroy, a Prince George's Democrat.

The state could write a condition into a contract requiring, for example, that a company keep all existing employees or use union labor, company officials said during the hearing.

Afterward, Jim Carsten, vice president of Correctional Services Corp. of Georgia, said his company can reduce operating costs as much as 15 percent by cutting unnecessary, high-cost administrative positions.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat, questioned the companies' predictions of savings and better programs. Turner quoted from a 1996 report by the U.S. Government Affairs HTC Office that found "little difference and mixed results" when states hired private companies to run prisons.

Robert A. Babbage Jr., vice president of USCC of Louisville, Ky., one the four companies at the hearing, called the report "flawed."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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