Editorial: State-run prisons are a smart but costly course correction - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: State-run prisons are a smart but costly course correction

Staffing prisons is often tough. So it was hoped during the administration of former Gov. Gary Johnson that a shift to privately run prisons would alleviate chronic understaffing problems.

But it hasn’t. New Mexico has continued to struggle to retain corrections officers; currently the statewide vacancy rate is 27.1%.

It was also hoped almost three decades ago that privately run prisons would alleviate chronic mismanagement.

That also hasn’t panned out. Instead, prisoners at corporate-run prisons have complained of the frequent and prolonged use of lockdowns, and the regular use of solitary confinement. Meanwhile, complaints about transparency and accountability abound.

“Private prisons are all about cutting corners, increasing inmate populations, and making as much money as possible by underpaying workers and giving them no real retirement and poorer health care,” says Carter Bundy, the political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico.

Two decades ago, New Mexico led nearly all states in a higher rate of housing inmates in corporate-run prisons. As recently as 2019, New Mexico had the nation’s second-highest percentage of inmates in privately run prisons, behind only Montana.

But the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has changed course, announcing plans over the past two years to take over management of privately run prisons – Clayton in 2019; Grants and Santa Rosa this year.

It all started after the state levied fines on the GEO Group, the private prison company that formerly operated the Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton, for low staffing levels. The pending takeover of the Santa Rosa prison was prompted by a corrections officer vacancy rate that hit 72% at one point.

Currently, four of the state’s 11 prisons are privately run, yet they hold 42% of the state’s inmates. Once the governor’s plan is complete, only one-quarter of state prison beds will be in privately run facilities, down from nearly half at the start of 2019.

The state’s last privately run prisons will be the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, managed by the Management and Training Corporation, based in Centerville, Utah, and the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, managed by the GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida.

The governor is correct to move back to state control, but make no mistake – it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot more money. Legislative analysts project the state’s takeover of the three privately run prisons in Clayton, Grants and Santa Rosa will cost $9.9 million over the coming years, with higher pay for corrections officers making up a big part of that increase. A former correctional officer told the Journal state-employed corrections officers typically make $2 to $3 more an hour than their privately employed counterparts. Corrections officers at state-run prisons also typically enjoy more generous retirement benefits.

“We pay better, and I believe, hopefully, we’ll be able to stabilize that (workforce),” says Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero.

Prison privatization done right was an effort worth pursuing, but something about a for-profit prison system never sat well with many New Mexicans. If nowhere else, the mother of an aggrieved inmate can sit outside the Governor’s Office day after day demanding answers. Where’s the mother of a mistreated inmate guarded by contractors to go, to the company’s corporate headquarters in Florida? The responsibility of care ultimately rests with the state that took away the liberty of the offender for the safety of society.

Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, speaks for many New Mexicans when she says “reclaim(ing) our prison system” is the “right thing to do.” We hope she’s also correct that it leads to a much more stable workforce and a much more accountable prison system.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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