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Our fateful mistake: Prison corporations are wrong for NM

When I first started representing prisoners in New Mexico in the early 1970s, there was only one prison in New Mexico – the (Penitentiary of New Mexico) in Santa Fe. There was a minimum-security facility in Los Lunas, the “Honor Farm.” There was no prison for women. A few women were housed in a building next to the PNM called the “Annex,” converted from a building designed for administrative use.

The PNM was severely overcrowded for years. It was filthy, understaffed and dangerous. On Feb. 2, 1980, the inevitable happened – an eruption into deadly violence. Thirty-three people were killed, and many were terribly injured.

As a result, the people of New Mexico finally understood that our prison system was a dismal failure. In 1977, a courageous prisoner named Dwight Duran had filed a handwritten complaint in federal court that challenged all of the conditions at the PNM as violations of constitutional rights. His case later became known as the Duran Consent Decree when the federal court assumed control over the New Mexico prison system for many years after the 1980 riot.

Later, as solutions were sought in the litigation and elsewhere, our state made a fateful mistake. We believed the sales pitches of corporations that promised to incarcerate prisoners for bargain prices, to deliver jobs to rural areas and to reform the system. We failed to recognize that prison corporations, driven only by a compulsion to maximize profits and minimize expenses, were fundamentally wrong for our state. Their operations have been marked by understaffing, constitutional violations, contract disputes and continuing efforts to magnify their revenue by increasing the number of prisoners under their control. Sadly, we have now apparently reached a point where New Mexico relies on corporate incarceration more than any other state.

Our experience has shown that there are no cost savings with corporate prisons. In fact, privatized incarceration has cost us more than other options and has failed to make us safer. Our rural communities have not benefitted economically. The corporate lockups are marked by poor conditions, neglect, prisoner abuse and litigation.

Our criminal justice system should keep us safe, operate fairly and be cost-effective. Prison corporations have miserably failed to deliver the promises they made. Now we have a chance to correct our mistake. We need to end our experiment with profit-driven prison corporations. As a native New Mexican and someone who has followed our prison system for almost 50 years, I am confident that we, the citizens of New Mexico, can do a better job than they can.

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