It's been tough times for the prison privatization industry. The two biggest companies both have extra space thanks to a recent drop in the number of people sent to private prisons. The companies just can't seem to expand their share of the market. The poor guys really lost out when the Florida Senate killed a bill that would have privatized 27 prisons and displaced more than 3,500 workers. The lobbying was so aggressive, one senator with health problems actually had to get protection from her colleagues.
Then there's the not-so-great press—a two-part series from NPR last year included particularly horrifying tales. All told, these poor private prison company execs have not had much to smile about.
So imagine what joy they must have had when New Hampshire put out an RFP to privatize the state's entire prison system. That's right—the entire system.
According to the New Hampshire Business Review, previous state debate on privatization didn't exactly win anyone's affection, and the state currently has no private prisons. But some lawmakers managed to sneak in a study committee to consider a full-scale privatization:
The proposal was to "privatize the Department of Corrections", which was to issue a report on the plan by Dec. 1, 2011. Also included was the requirement that the Department of Administrative Services issue a request for proposal for "provision of correctional services or any other services provided by the Department of Corrections." However, it added that the commissioner "may enter into one or more contracts" for the "transfer and reception of not more than 600 inmates."
It is unclear from the wording whether Administrative Services or Corrections can go beyond that and contract out the entire prison system without legislative approval.
However, many of those involved in the process think that the state can, even though some say that such a maneuver won't fly politically.
As Business Review explains, of the 20 companies that were initially interested in build a single prison, four companies have put out bids on the state-wide offer for the male and male-female hybrid prisons. (No one bid on female-only it seems.) Three of them—the GEO Group, the Corrections Corporation of America, and Management and Training Corp.—have extensive and often controversial experience. All three hired high-power lobbyists to push their interests, arguing not only for the benefits of one company's plan but also the general merit of privatization.
Of course, as prison advocates are quick to point out, privatization is a step backwards for rehabilitating folks. To maximize efficiency, prisoners get shipped around the country, meaning families cannot visit and often community support structures are lacking. New Hampshire's plan allows such transfers, and since the closes private prisons are in Ohio, families better start saving now if they want to trek out to see incarcerated loved ones.
Even the argument that things would be cheaper seems met with some questions. As the spokesperson for Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform told the Business Review:
The research says private prisons can be marginally cheaper to operate when they serve their preferred kind of inmate, the population that is docile and healthy. It's the same way profit-making HMOs cherry pick the youngest and healthiest subscribers. ... But study after study shows that government-run programs generally do better with the challenging prisoners, and the quality of rehabilitation is consistently better for all inmate classifications." Dornin added that "private prisons tend to skimp on pay, training and staffing ratios. The result is often high turnover and personnel shortage. That's a dangerous combination behind razor wire.
New Hampshire could still decide against the plan. We'll have to likely wait until the end of the summer to see if the state becomes the first place in the country to hand over its entire male prison population to a for-profit corporation. It would be quite a distinction.