February 7 – the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony on HB 443, which calls for an out and out ban of prison privatization in NH. Scores of supporters crowded the small room, as Bill Sponsor Rep. Timothy Robertson, a Keene Democrat presented his case “There is no evidence they (private prisons) can save you money,” Robertson said. “The incentive for these for-profit companies is to get more out of it by keeping inmates in longer and treating them worse.”
Rep. Steve Vaillaincourt pounced on Rep. Robertson asking “isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?” “Aren’t we currently studying this matter? Shouldn’t we await the results of the study before moving forward with this bill?” SEA President Diana Lacey was quick to point out in her testimony that there is no such study going on. What is going on is an evaluation of bids received in response to an RFP for outside for-profit vendors to build and or manage: a 1500 bed facility for men; a 200 bed facility for women and a third co-ed prison. “We need to be clear that what we have is a hired consultant working to help evaluate bids that have been received in response to an RFP. This has been going on for months but the public won’t know anything about the work done because of NH’s procurement laws.” Ultimately, when the public will know more will come just a few days before the Governor and Executive Council are presented with a contract to approve. “The State is cloaking major public policy decisions in a confidential procurement process that merely six people will vote on.This is not a study, and it does not give the people of NH a chance to be part of that major debate.”
There is widespread research that reveals for-profit prison corporations have a powerful lobbying machine that has been spending tremendous amounts of money in NH. Lacey, emphasizing the need for NH to choose a good public policy path to meet NH’s prison capacity needs, called for building our own prisons, if needed, through a capitol project and fair bidding process. “Public/private partnerships (P3s) cost more money and would see the State amassing debt that doesn’t show up on our books.”
NH Dept. of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn testified in opposition to the bill. While he has never publicly endorsed the policy position that private prisons are good, he explained he believes this particular bill “ties our hands.” He spoke of instances where it may be necessary due to emergency circumstances to send NH prisoners to a private prison for the short-term. “Private prisons may be needed to manage overpopulation in our facilities in the event of a sudden, unexpected emergency,” Wrenn said. “If fire or natural disaster made (a prison) uninhabitable, private facilities could provide necessary bed space in a short period of time.” The SEA understands that Commissioner Wrenn is doing his job planning for emergency response contingencies; however, we disagree on how these needs could be met.
By his own testimony, Wrenn pointed out that most government run prisons are at capacity; but there are empty beds in private prisons. Research indicates that thirty states have authorized private prisons and three states have stopped using their private prisons. Therefore we contend that Commissioner Wrenn’s concern about emergency need is moot because if there are empty private prison beds in up to 27 states, those same 27 states can move their own prisoners into their private prisons to help NH meet excess demands at times.
“If private prisons are so much cheaper and so much better, then why do 27 states have empty private prison beds and no room in their government run prisons?,” asked Lacey. “If they were so good, wouldn’t their government run prisons be empty so that they could save their own taxpayers money?”
Among Other groups who testified in support of HB 443 were the state’s Congregational churches, the Episcopal Diocese of NH, the American Friends Service Committee, the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, the ACLU, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, all members of a statewide coalition, New Hampshire Prison Watch. You can learn more about this issue at www.nhprisonwatch.org.
We will continue to monitor this legislation and provide updates as it moves through the process.
Coverage of this hearing: