War on private prisons doesn’t help anyone

The following appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Contractor-operated prisons, or so-called “private prisons,” have been vilified among progressives, even though their success in preparing inmates for productive engagement after their incarceration should be lauded by all social and political ideologies as part of the solution to social justice reform.

HB 40, which would eliminate all privately-managed correctional facilities in New Mexico, (was introduced in the recent 60-day legislative session but failed to clear the House).

Last month, President Biden signed an executive order to end new contracts between the Department of Justice and contractor-run corrections facilities, which almost exclusively house foreign citizens convicted of federal crimes.

Contractor-run correctional facilities perform a valuable service. They help control overcrowding in publicly-run prisons, while providing more and better rehabilitation opportunities. Typically, inmates are safer as rates of assault were lower at contractor-run facilities than rates in publicly-managed prisons.

Opened in 1998, the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs is a contractor-managed facility, operated by GEO Group on a former World War II training base. As with all correctional facilities in the United States, it is managed in compliance with standards set by the American Correctional Association. The facility was most recently reaccredited in 2015 with a perfect score.

The facility provides inmates with training, work programming, recreation and educational opportunities. GEO’s in-custody and post-release “continuum of care” programming, developed by experts in criminal justice, substance abuse, psychology and other areas keeps residents engaged for positive change, is critical for them to be successful once they serve their sentence and to avoid reoffending. A study from the Rand Corporation found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43% less likely to recidivate than inmates who did not. And, oftentimes, state budget cuts often hit prison programming first, while private contractors have flexibility and can invest their own resources to continue to do what is best for those in their care.

While visiting another GEO Group-managed facility here in New Mexico, I met residents and staff who spoke highly of their experiences with the programming offered. Many residents have struggled with substance abuse challenges and require acute counseling and rehabilitation programming to help overcome their addiction. According to the Sage Neuroscience Center, all of the top 10 causes of death in New Mexico can be at least partially attributed to drug and alcohol abuse. Program residents must complete the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) as part of their sentence. With new executive orders underway and the threat of HB 40, these programs could be shut down, potentially forcing these individuals into a jailhouse general population where they would not be able to get the services they need to survive and thrive after they serve their sentence. Revoking important substance abuse programs would destine many of these people to the damning cycle of ongoing drug and alcohol abuse, harming not only themselves, but also their families, and local communities.

In short, all contractor-operated facilities follow the same protocols, policies and procedures as publicly-run facilities under the New Mexico Department of Corrections. Furthermore, the contractors have strict oversight of their operations that include on-site monitors, something that the government facilities and the state lack. Additionally, contractors are held to the terms of their agreement with the state and are penalized for any shortcomings, unlike their government-run counterparts.

Most importantly, as our nation shifts its corrections’ paradigm to highlight judicial reforms and inmate reentry, we should leverage all of the successful tools at our disposal to provide inmates with the care, attention, and training they need inside facility walls – whether contractor run or publicly run – in order to be well-functioning members of society when they rejoin the public.

Continuing to wage war on contractor-run prisons doesn’t solve any problems or help inmates. If a program works, it shouldn’t matter who is managing it. By working together, we can rethink our prison system for the benefit of everyone.