Private Prison Has Everything but Prisoners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Myers' field of dreams sits way out in the Mojave Desert, past a parched golf course, a mobile home park and a snake squished on the two-lane road.

Rising from a field of tumbleweeds and creosote bushes is a new $100-million, 2,300-bed maximum security prison. Myers' dream is to operate the prison for profit.

Myers, a former Texas prison warden, runs the West Coast branch of Corrections Corp. of America, a Nashville company that is the leading builder and operator of private prisons.

In its pursuit of a piece of California's annual $4.7-billion prison budget, Corrections Corp. constructed the prison on speculation: If they built it, the prisoners would come.

But the inmates haven't come, and nothing suggests that the state will ship any prisoners there any time soon.

The vacant prison is the most visible sign of a fight that rages in Sacramento and across the country as private firms try to gain a greater share of the nation's nearly 2 million prison inmates.

Nowhere is the fight more fierce than in California. The state houses the largest prison population in the nation--162,000 inmates--underwrites the biggest prison budget, and has perhaps the nation's most powerful correctional officers union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Gov. Gray Davis--who won his job partly with the support of such labor unions--and many legislators are skeptical of corporations housing people whose liberty has been revoked by government. That's government's job, they say.

"We have obligations to ourselves, to our democracy, to our Constitution, and some obligations to the prisoners to act in a professional manner," Davis says, "and I don't feel comfortable having any prison that isn't managed and operated by sworn officers."

Myers doesn't understand the resistance. Corrections Corp. can ease overcrowding by taking custody of 2,300 convicts today, providing them with as much job training, education and drug treatment as the state cares to pay for, he says.

The cost would be $55 per inmate a day, more or less. Corrections Corp. says that would save the state $10 million a year for those 2,300 beds--though critics cite studies showing hidden costs at private prisons elsewhere in the country, along with high employee turnover and mediocre programs.

"The mistake I make," Myers says, "is that I use common sense."

In politics, however, one special interest's "common sense" solution often infringes on another interest's turf. So it is with Myers' foray into the world of California corrections.

The guards union, which represents 25,000 officers at state-run prisons, stands to lose influence if private, nonunion operators win contracts to incarcerate prisoners.

Union President Don Novey says his opposition does not stem from a desire to expand membership or maintain what Myers calls a monopoly over corrections. "It's about doing the right thing for public safety," Novey says. "The people of the state of California do not want to put public safety into the hands of shareholders."

Making matters tougher for Corrections Corp. is its prison in Youngstown, Ohio. That facility was the focus of a biting story on TV's "60 Minutes" in May. The report told of guards without proper training, a brutal inmate death and the escape of six prisoners who cut a hole in the perimeter fence last year and slipped away in broad daylight.

California's Board of Corrections inspected the new California City facility and found problems such as bunks that are too narrow and paper towel dispensers and electrical outlet covers that could be fashioned into weapons. Myers said the company will make changes to comply with state standards.

To an unpracticed eye, the prison looks like any other prison: steel doors, unbreakable glass, thick concrete, locked control rooms, security cameras--all ringed by razor wire and underground sensors.

An escapee would have to traverse miles of desert. It is a two-hour drive to Los Angeles and eight miles to the rather desolate town dubbed California City.

The empty prison even has a warden, Daniel Vasquez, the burly former head of San Quentin who in 1992 oversaw the state's first execution in 25 years, that of Robert Alton Harris. Vasquez is ready to hire guards--he has more than 1,000 applications--as soon as Myers can find inmates.

"Here we are with this alternative," Vasquez said as he led a tour of the facility, "and the state doesn't even want to look at it."

Myers, giving up on the state for now, is looking elsewhere for inmates, and said he is close to an agreement with other government entities to fill the place, though he won't identify them. "We built it for occupancy," Myers says. "It's first come, first served."

Southern California counties, including Orange and Kern, are considering housing inmates there. The federal government is another potential customer, though a spokesman said the Bureau of Prisons will not turn maximum security inmates over to private operators.

"We do not believe they have demonstrated a track record of managing medium- and high-security populations," federal prison spokesman Todd Craig said.

But they are all second choices for Myers. The big prize is state convicts. In this regard, Corrections Corp. is not without its resources.

The firm spread $280,000 in campaign donations to Republicans and Democrats in California last year. It has retained two top lobbying firms through March at a cost of $250,000, and a large public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller.

But that pales compared with the union's efforts. Guards handed out $4.1 million in campaign money in the state last year, including $2.3 million to help elect Davis. The union has employees who lobby, plus a top contract lobbying company and a political consulting firm.

Lawmakers are pushing bills backed by the union to curtail private prisons in California. One measure would bar local governments from placing inmates at private prisons. Another would restrict Myers' ability to import inmates from other states.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has issued an opinion saying that state law already bars other states from placing their felons in private prisons here without California's consent.

As part of the battle, the union hands out an eight-page list of news reports of escapes from private prisons nationwide and distributes copies of the "60 Minutes" report on Youngstown. Corrections Corp. cites abuses at the state's prisons, including the one at Corcoran, the focus of legislative hearings last year covering the state's handling of investigations into the shooting deaths of seven inmates.

Myers and Novey do agree on one thing: The state has problems--162,000 of them. Every cell is filled, most with two inmates, though they were designed for one. Thousands of inmates sleep in gymnasiums, double- and triple-bunked.

The governor, while advocating tough sentences, worries that the courts will declare the prisons too crowded and order early releases.

Novey's solution is for the state to build prisons. Davis won legislative approval last month for a plan--advocated by Novey and his union--to finance construction of a $335-million prison in Delano in the Central Valley. The new prison will house fewer than 5,000 inmates, so more facilities will have to be built.

State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), Corrections Corp.'s biggest booster, is convinced that the state will have to turn to private prisons. "Either we're going to get sued and be forced to do it, or we're going to have to step up to the plate and do it because it's good for public safety."

Corrections Corp. and a few other companies entered the field in the 1980s. At the time, Republicans controlled the White House and the governor's office in California and pushed the idea of privatizing government operations as a way to save taxpayers money.

With Democrats now controlling California's government, initiatives to turn state work over to private enterprise are on hold or are being reversed.

Still, private prison companies operate 185 facilities with 132,500 beds, most of them in the United States. California, one of 31 states with private lockups, has a dozen of them housing 6,257 inmates. They are small facilities whose residents pose minimal risks and are serving short sentences.

The California City prison goes a step beyond. It is a maximum security facility, with a housing unit where problem inmates can be kept in solitary confinement and allowed to exercise in fenced cages eight paces long by four paces wide.

Unlike Corrections Corp., other private prison operators in California have no intention of building "spec" prisons. Two of them, Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and Cornell Cos. Inc., want to expand their niche by housing drug offenders and low-risk inmates, including mentally or physically disabled inmates, or elderly prisoners.

Corrections Corp. and its parent, Prison Realty Trust Inc., show signs of strain.

A month ago, the company put on hold a second spec prison in the San Joaquin Valley town of Mendota. Its stock, listed on the New York exchange as PZN, hovers at $10 a share, down from $30 a year ago. Analysts who track the stock took a dim view of the firm when it understated costs in its method of financing its operations.

Analysts also cite the Youngstown escape.

Corrections Corp. built a medium security prison in Youngstown, then contracted for inmates from Washington, D.C.--many of whom turned out to be maximum security prisoners.

The local sheriff learned of the escape from an anonymous 911 call. Then, prison authorities failed to confirm the breakout for an hour and a half, said Ohio state Sen. Mark Mallory, who sits on a prison oversight committee.

Despite promised reforms by Corrections Corp., Mallory has lingering doubts about private prisons: Can a private guard legally use deadly force to prevent escapes? Mallory says it's not clear, though Corrections Corp. guards carry guns. Can a state compel companies to release internal documents? Mallory never felt he got full answers.

"They're building an empire. I'll hold off on whether or not it is evil," Mallory says. "The states and feds have to wake up and put in some nationwide standards."

In California City, a town of 9,000 people and 205 square miles, City Manager Jack Stewart dismisses concerns about a potential repeat of the Youngstown problems. If it gets filled, the prison will bring 500 jobs and help his town attain its dreams.

"It will help us get a theater, a shoe store, a supermarket, all the commercial [shops] you get in most small towns," Stewart said. "It will help us get a new high school and a new hotel."

For his part, Myers continues to negotiate with counties, but also believes the state some day soon will come knocking. "It is spiraling down. Am I the only one who can see it?"

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