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Increase in inmates opens door to private prisons

Times Staff Writer

. -- Mark Childress knows prisons -- from the inside.

Though only 36 years old, he’s done stretches in 10 state lockups, including some of the toughest around. And now California has locked him up again -- this time in Arizona.

Childress is a part of a first wave of about 700 male convicts that California has shipped to privately owned and operated prisons in Arizona, Tennessee and Mississippi. “I feel good, like I could do another 10 years,” he said, half-jokingly.

The nation’s big private prison companies like it too. Having long lusted after a share of California’s 173,000-inmate population, they now foresee a steady stream of business.

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Depending on the outcome of legal challenges, California could be “one of the longtime drivers of growth for the private prison industry,” industry analyst Kevin Campbell said.

Until December, the state had not put a medium- or maximum-security prisoner in a private lockup since 1852, when it replaced a private prison ship in San Francisco Bay with California’s first public prison, San Quentin.

Private companies say they can build secure prisons faster and cheaper than state governments and are not saddled with the high salaries and pension costs paid by public agencies.

Critics counter that states that use private prisons get what they pay for: Guards are poorly paid and trained, and private prisons experience more escapes and more disciplinary problems than state-run institutions, they contend. And the state is sending away its better-behaved prisoners, they say, making California prisons even more dangerous.

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The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Justice Department, said in a 2001 study that limited research showed that “privately operated prisons function as well as publicly operated prisons.” Management problems usually are caused by poorly drafted contracts and poor oversight of private operators by states, the study said.

The public-private dilemma is hitting California head-on -- with corporate America battling the prison guard establishment.

The search to find more room for California prisoners -- and pressure from federal judges -- led to a $7.4-billion plan proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved by lawmakers in April. It gave the private prison companies the opening they’ve long sought.

For decades, these companies attempted to win contracts to house convicts in privately owned or leased in-state prisons, only to see their efforts thwarted by the wealthy, politically influential California prison guards union.

Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, the industry leader, even built a 2,300-bed, maximum-security prison as a speculative investment in Kern County in the mid-1990s. The state balked, and the facility now holds federal prisoners.

Now, California has signed a contract with Corrections Corp. to house as many as 4,000 prisoners at a per-prisoner price of $63 a day. That compares with the average of $123 a day that the state estimates it costs to keep an inmate in one of California’s 33 prisons.

Opposition to private prisons from the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., other state employees organizations and prison watchdog groups remains potent. They sued in Sacramento Superior Court to halt the transfers and won. But the judge put her ruling on hold pending an appeal in February.

“I’m dubious that it’s a good idea for the state to embrace” private prisons, said Steve Fama, an attorney with the nonprofit inmate advocacy group Prison Law Office near San Quentin. Prisons are “a core state function,” he said.

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The governor should control the prison population by releasing nonviolent offenders and reducing parole revocations, not by building more prisons and sending inmates to other states, Fama said.

California is one of at least 30 states that have turned to the private prison industry for help after realizing that they couldn’t build enough prisons to keep pace with a flood of new inmates as lawmakers passed ever-tougher sentencing laws.

Over the last decade, the number of inmate beds in private prisons has jumped sixfold to about 112,000 in mid-2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most of the growth was at three major operators -- Corrections Corp., Boca Raton, Fla.-based Geo Group and Houston-based Cornell Cos.

“We think we can play a significant role in a solution to the problem” in California, said Tony Grande, Corrections Corp.'s vice president for state government relations. So far, California has sent 317 prisoners to Arizona, 312 to Mississippi and 80 to Tennessee.

Prison industry analysts, impressed with the growing demand for private prison beds, are upbeat. The stocks of the three big companies have shown solid growth this year. “We remain bullish,” said Jeffrey T. Kessler, a Lehman Bros. equity researcher in a recent report.

Nowhere is the growth of the private prison industry more in evidence than in Florence in the Sonoran Desert. The town is a sort of prison-industrial complex that hosts 11 Arizona state prisons, a federal immigration detention center and four private lockups. It is home to 8,000 residents and about 17,000 inmates.

At the 2,200-bed Florence Correctional Center, Childress shares a cell with one inmate. Childress says he’s far more comfortable in Arizona than he was when he bunked in a gym packed with more than 100 men at a California prison in a remote part of northeastern California.

Unlike most California prisons, the Florence facility is air-conditioned to handle the Arizona heat. But the Arizona prison is no country club, says Childress, California inmate No. P-24277. He and other California inmates, waiting for lunch in an austere cellblock day room, complained about the food at Florence and the lack of enough outdoor-exercise time.

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Childress says he feels safer in the Arizona prison than he did in California, where racially segregated gangs often rule the exercise yards and guards watch inmates with automatic rifles at the ready.

“We’re not around too much danger. Most people here are trying to get away from that,” he said.

Corrections Corp. says its prisons are clean, safe and secure. But the company acknowledges that its prisons are not immune from occasional assaults, disturbances and violence.

“Safety and security is the obvious No. 1 priority for CCA,” spokeswoman Louise Grant said. “We have a very strong record that compares very favorably with our public counterparts.”

Government reports show that Corrections Corp. has had fewer escapes, suicides and homicides than comparable public prisons, she said.

In Florence, Corrections Corp.'s facility radiates little of the watch-your-back tension among inmates that permeates massive California prisons.

“It’s less tense, and it’s quiet,” said Francisco Barrios, 37, of Burbank, doing five years for illegal discharge of a firearm. “The people who came here want to do their time and go home.”

California is not shipping out prisoners wholesale. The state sends only medium-security and some minimum-security inmates out of state. Maximum-security prisoners, including those on death row, and others with mental illness or serious health problems are ineligible. Inmates at women’s prisons, which are not as crowded as male institutions, are not sent out of state.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says there’s no evidence that the transfers have made California prisons more dangerous. Inmates to be transferred must meet legal and security criteria and “are being matched to the security level of institutions available to us,” he said.

Corrections officials say they want to ease crowding, at least temporarily, and avoid the possibility that federal judges might put a limit on convict populations and force the governor to release felons before their sentences are completed.

Turning to private prisons is “not a policy of choice,” Sessa said. “It’s a policy of circumstances.”

But California prison guard unions, with many members making more than $100,000 a year with overtime pay, aren’t eager to give up any jobs to their less well-paid colleagues at the private prisons.

Private prisons are “making a fortune off of people’s misery,” said Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. “It’s dungeons for dollars.”

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Going private

The number of inmates in privately owned and operated U.S. prisons has increased to about 112,000 in mid-2006 from just under 17,000 in 1995. Major companies are planning to build facilities to house about 10,000 more prisoners by the end of 2008. Here are the three biggest firms in the nation:

Corrections Corp.

of America (Nashville)

Operates 65 prisons with 72,000 inmate beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Geo Group Inc.

(Boca Raton, Fla.)

Operates 46 prisons with 51,000 inmate beds in 18 states.

Cornell Cos. (Houston)

Operates 13 prisons with 10,000 inmate beds in eight states.

Sources: Company representatives

and Web pages, U.S. Bureau of

Justice Statistics


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