Just as Wyoming lawmakers are taking up serious criminal justice reform, a lack of funds and problems with current correctional facilities have caused other state officials to consider joining forces with private prisons.

It could be an attractive partnership for legislators who want to avoid building more prisons. But it’s unquestionably the wrong move to make at a time when Wyoming is already headed down a far different but more positive path. Using alternative sentencing options, offering more substance abuse treatment and utilizing community probation and parole programs could reduce the inmate population and ultimately improve public safety.

The upside to the state choosing these reforms is so great it should eliminate the temptation to fix its correctional system by handing expensive problems over to private industry. But since the lack of money to revamp its prison system is at the core of the choices Wyoming has to make, don’t expect advocates of privatization to quit pitching ideas that could motivate the state to do business with the $5 billion a year industry.

Private prisons have one overriding goal: to make a profit. They aren’t looking for ways to reduce recidivism because they depend on a steady stream of inmates for revenue. There are countless examples throughout the nation of private prisons that have cut corners by offering inadequate medical care, terrible food and inhumane living conditions. Typically they have less experienced correctional officers and more employee turnover because they pay less than public prisons.

Wyoming has some experience with private prisons, and it’s mostly been bad. Overcrowded prisons in the late 1990s led the state to ship hundreds of inmates to private facilities in Texas, Colorado and other states. About 120 Wyoming inmates were housed in a Colorado prison that had a riot in 2004. Prisoners reportedly set fires, smashed toilets and sinks, destroyed appliances and searched prison files for the names of informants and sex offenders.

Some Wyoming prisoners complained about the conditions in these facilities, which isn’t exactly a surprise. For decades the American Civil Liberties Union has documented cases nationally in which private prison inmates were subjected to beatings and sexual assaults.

Treatment, family connections may be lost

Uprooting prisoners from their cells in Wyoming and transporting them to out-of-state private prisons can have other consequences for the inmates. Treatment and educational programs prisoners are participating in are disrupted. They also lose vital connections with family and friends whose frequent visits can improve inmates’ mental outlook and behavior.

Wyoming already has a contract with the nation’s largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America. The state would pay it up to $5.1 million if structural problems at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins will require inmates to be moved. The current prison was built on unstable soil about 15 years ago, and shifting has caused walls to separate and floors to buckle. Laura Hancock of the Casper Star Tribune did the original reporting on the contract between Wyoming and the Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic.

The state is scheduled to renew its contract with CCA, recently renamed CoreCivic, later this month. Since the agreement would go into effect only if inmates need to be protected in case of a safety emergency, it’s only a temporary solution until the state decides what to do next. These inmates have to be placed somewhere, even if a private prison is far from ideal for the reasons cited above.

It’s the next part of the equation that presents a potentially huge problem. The Legislature could spend nearly $90 million to repair the prison at Rawlins or an estimated $400 million to start over. Constructing a new building — provided engineers and architects make sure it’s not going to sink this time — would be the optimum solution if the funds are available.

If the Legislature would agree to issue bonds for a new prison, as Republican Gov. Matt Mead supports, it could fund the project the way most states do. But the Legislature’s GOP leadership has preferred to pay cash for such facilities, and that much money isn’t readily available from general funds and won’t be until mineral severance tax revenues return to pre-bust levels.

Earlier this year lawmakers created a prison savings account with at least $40 million deposited each year from state investment earnings, up to $250 million. The demand for a new prison, wherever the Legislature decides to build one, won’t allow the state to wait that long.

That’s where CoreCivic enters the picture. Company officials recently met with lawmakers, including House Speaker Steve Harshman (R, H-37, Casper) to discuss the possibility of hiring CoreCivic to build a new state penitentiary.

Private companies want more business

It’s a bad idea, primarily because private prison corporations have no reason to stop their involvement with construction. There’s a limited amount of revenue a private company can obtain from building a prison; the real economic opportunity comes from running the facility.

“There’s no way a private prison company is going to build the state’s prison and just hand it over. It’s not going to happen,” Sabrina King, director of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Casper Star-Tribune.

Linda Burt, former state ACLU director, agrees. “I think it’s important to remember these people are working for a profit,” she told the newspaper. “They’re not going to be making (much of a) profit in building it. I would be surprised after they build it that they would want to walk away from it. That’s where they make all their money.”

CoreCivic and the nation’s other major private prison companies have a new incentive to turn to states. After years of having a significant role in housing federal prisoners, the U.S. Department of Justice announced last summer that it is phasing out its use of private prisons. One of the reasons cited was the fact that while private corporations maintained they could do the job cheaper, their costs were comparable to what was spent by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

If CoreCivic needs a new cash cow, though, it shouldn’t be welcomed by Wyoming. Given the Trump administration’s desire to deport immigrants in the country illegally, companies will likely make up some of their federal prison revenue by building and operating facilities to house people while they await deportation proceedings. Wyoming doesn’t need any part of that business, either.

Politicians in Wyoming will likely see more contributions to their campaigns in future elections from private companies that want to influence legislative candidates who are supportive of their efforts to build prisons for the state. In other states they have lobbied for even harsher sentences to keep inmates behind prison walls. But lawmakers need to look at what’s best for the state’s correctional system, and that includes criminal justice reform that’s been the focus of the Joint Judiciary Committee the past two years.

During this year’s session House Bill 94 would have allowed the DOC to bypass prison and sentence non-violent offenders to probation and supervision through community programs. The goal is to provide treatment to substance abusers and others so the offenders will have a better chance to integrate back into society when they have completed the conditions of their probation.

Ideally, reducing the prison population by removing non-violent offenders with lengthy sentences will reduce the demand for prison space. People who have successfully been treated for substance abuse should be less likely to keep committing crimes to feed their drug habits.

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The bill also made parole and probation violators subject to sanctions but not automatically sent back to prison.

House Bill 94 was approved by the House but after the bill was opposed by Doug Chamberlain, a member of the Wyoming Parole Board, and District Attorney Mike Blonigen of Natrona County, it was held back by Senate President Eli Bebout (R, S-26, Riverton), who refused to assign it to a Senate Committee. Chamberlain objected to giving more power to the Department of Corrections, while Blonigen said the bill didn’t have enough funding for treatment. The prosecutor also is concerned about the DOC letting people out of jail too early. 

“I am worried about DOC’s ‘getting out of jail free’ cards,” Blonigen said. “It is an increasing problem. Our case is never finished now. The Parole Board lets people out and we have no control over it.  Case is never over even after trial. We get cases back based on ineffective counsel.  Our numbers are pretty consistent.  What we are getting is more post-trial motions.”

The Joint Judiciary Committee is continuing its work on criminal justice reform, though it may have difficulty passing such legislation as long as Bebout is in the Senate president’s chair. In the meantime, it’s important for the panel and the rest of the Legislature to just say no to private prisons. They are not compatible with prison reforms Wyoming needs to enact.

This article has been updated to recognize that Laura Hancock of the Casper Star Tribune did the original reporting on the contract between Wyoming and the Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic — Ed.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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