Is Louisiana on the Brink of a Terrible Decision?

Previously published on Why I Hate CCA

Photo by Robert Stringer

Louisiana, the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country, is considering selling its Avoyelles Correctional Center to a private company in a vain effort to save money.  This was immediately panned as a terrible idea by many in central Louisiana (where the prison is located), including the union that represents COs (AFSCME) and a local mayor who is concerned about public safety issues if the privatization moves forward.  State legislators also voiced concerns about the privatization effort, after witnessing problems at current private prisons within the state; one went so far as to beg the legislature, “Don’t do this to the victims of crime all over Louisiana.”  A former legislator also lamented the prospect of forcing state employees to take jobs with less pay and benefits, but the bill passed the appropriations committee by a narrow vote.

The first incarnation of the bill to privatize the prison would have set the contract length at 30 years; thankfully, the bill’s sponsor had an epiphany of (some) common sense, and introduced an amendment that would prevent the prison from being sold (but not turning over its operation) and limit the contract to ten years.  A second amendment would also prevent a private company from charging a minimum occupancy rate, which could seriously undermine any company’s desire to undertake responsibility for the facility.  Which would be a wonderful development.

Even with these new restrictions, privatizing Avoyelles would be a very risky decision; the mayor of Alexandria, Louisiana claims that privatization would present “significant issues” and put Alexandria “on the long-term road to being in a worse place than where [it] started.”  The mayor went on to discuss how privatization has failed to save Louisiana and other states money in the past, and was joined by a former corrections official in warning about the potential impact on public safety.  The Southern Poverty Law Center concurred, saying that the long-term costs will far outweigh any short-term benefits achieved through privatization.  A managing attorney at the firm describes how private prison companies often lowball per diem rates at the beginning of a contract, then demand higher rates for prisoners once a government has committed to sending prisoners there.  Basically, the companies get governments by the cojones – once the prisoners are in a private facility, the logistical headache of relocating hundreds of convicts allows the companies to charge more.

It appears as though all this opposition might finally be getting through to legislators; even after the sale of the prison was removed from the bill, the legislation appears to be in danger of failing.  Apparently, politicians in Louisiana are beginning to realize that endangering public safety for corporate profits might not be the most politically palatable course of action.