State considers private prisons

Sandra Emerson (San Bernardino County Sun)

Changes could be expected to California’s prisons in 2010 as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger aims to reduce prison costs.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal to allow private prisons to compete with public prisons could add billions of dollars to the general fund a year, he said. That money could then be funneled into the education system.

Although official plans have yet to be decided, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been looking into various models to adhere to the governor’s goals.

“The immediate answer is we’re still evaluating, and if we want to pursue the governor’s goals in creating a competitive market that might mean a mix of private and public staff, especially in health (for the inmates),” said Gordon Hinkle, press secretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The agency has been looking at successful models used in other states, he said.

Hinkle said it is too soon to foresee an impact on the California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women in the Chino Valley.

Various mandates on caring for the health of inmates have contributed to increased costs on the prison system and the oversight of federal judges has created additional obstacles, Hinkle said.

California spends $50,000 per prisoner, whereas the 10 largest states in the county only pay an average of $32,000.

If the state’s costs were lowered to the average of other large states, it could save California $4 billion a year, according to a news release issued Monday from the governor’s press office.

“They spend less, and yet you do not see federal judges taking over their prison health-care system,” Schwarzenegger said. “Why do we have to spend so much more than they do?”

The news release also cited the system’s high payroll as a cause of increased spending on prisons.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association released a statement in response to Schwarzenegger’s proposal calling his ideas for prison reform “business as usual.”

The Association represents more than 30,000 correctional peace officers working in California prisons and youth facilities as well as parole agents, according to their Web site.

Fred Stevens, CCPOA chapter president for the California Institution for Men, views privatizing prisons as a public safety concern.

“When you put state inmates in a private prison, it doesn’t take the liability of the state off of those inmates,” Stevens said. “When things go wrong at private prisons, and they need to call 9-1-1, it’s our officers that respond to it.”

Stevens said the state needs to look at wasteful spending going on in prisons throughout the state.

“At CIM for instance, they just paid over $1,200 to rent 12 movies for the inmates,” Stevens said.

Officials from The Association condemn the governor’s idea of privatizing prisons.

“Giving billions of dollars in the form of state contracts to large campaign contributors does little to solve the state’s budget crisis,” said Mike Jimenez, state president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. “Reducing bureaucratic waste, reforming our state’s parole system and helping released offenders succeed once they return to our communities would save real dollars and greatly improve public safety.”

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, said he agrees with Schwarzenegger’s goal of reducing spending on the prison system.

“We have to look at everything state government does and see if there are more cost-efficient (ways) and more benefits for the public – if we look at privatizing or going out to compete for things that are traditionally state-run monopolies,” Hagman said.

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