Bill would ease path for private prison in Milo

Posted Wednesday, May 4, 2011 in News

Bill would ease path for private prison in Milo

Inmate Hanni Elabed is beaten by a fellow inmate while guards watch at an Idaho prison run by CCA.

by Marian McCue

AUGUSTA – The lobbyist for Corrections Corporation of America chose his words carefully when he described what CCA wants from the state if it is to build a new prison in the beleaguered Piscataquis County town of Milo.

While it has been generally acknowledged that CCA backed off its interest in building a Milo facility because current Maine law forbids the state’s prisoners to be sent to private prisons, like those run by CCA, lobbyist James Mitchell of Mitchell Tardy assured a legislative panel Friday there had been no quid pro quo.

“The company has not indicated that it is a necessity for Maine to do business with the company in order for them to consider Maine as a potential site,” said Mitchell. But he quickly added that CCA had said in previous meetings with state officials that it “would potentially be useful for the state to build a business relationship with CCA as part of a means to encourage them to potentially locate in Maine.”

The assertion that there was no quid pro quo contradicted the statements of legislators and Milo town officials, who recounted how the town’s lengthy courtship of the Tennessee-based corporation stalled after the Legislature last session failed to enact a bill from Gov. John Baldacci that would have facilitated Maine prisoner transfers to private facilities.

“Part of the reason that CCA didn’t want to come is Maine had no prisoners going to them,” said Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville. Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan also stressed that CCA had backed off its plan to build the prison because of Maine’s present policy barring transfer to private prisons.

CCA, the largest operator of private prisons in the United States, has backed its interest in Maine with a $25,000 campaign contribution to the Republican Governors’ Association in support of Paul LePage. In December, as governor-elect, LePage met with CCA officials to indicate his continued support of the prison plan.

The discussion about CCA came at a hearing Friday in front of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on a bill that would authorize the transfer of prisoners to private facilities, removing what its sponsor described as a barrier to the potential new prison in Milo.

“This bill is about jobs for a town that desperately needs them,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Somerset, who recited a litany of lost jobs in the paper, railroad, and shoe industries in the hard-hit town. Thomas told committee members that Milo, which also suffered a devastating downtown fire in 2008 and has an 11 percent unemployment rate, desperately needs the jobs that the prison would provide.

“I get excited about $18-an-hour jobs in that area,” said Thomas.

But Will Towers, an official with the Maine correctional officers union, cautioned that salaries at a Milo prison would likely start at much less than $18 an hour. He said CCA prisons in Tennessee are paying $9 an hour.

Activists, religious leaders question prisons for profit

The concept of private prisons, and the record of CCA and other private prison companies, drew fire from several speakers, including Marc Mutty, representing the Roman Catholic bishop of Maine.

“Prisoners do not lose their humanity when they enter custody,” said Mutty. “Private prisons create a moral question, and we are troubled that private prisons in other states have cut staff to increase profits. There is an incentive to incarcerate people for longer periods of time.”

CCA is an active lobbying organization, spending $14.8 million between 2003 and 2010 to lobby various federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Prisons.CCA has been widely accused of lobbying for longer prison sentences, which would help its bottom line.

A report on National Public Radio detailed the lobbying efforts of CCA and its role in the drafting of the controversial Arizona immigration bill that allows police officers to check for citizenship papers from anyone they “reasonably suspect” is in the United States illegally. Critics have called that bill unconstitutional, and its provisions have been challenged by the federal Department of Justice. A similar law has been proposed in Maine.

Many of CCA’s facilities are built to house those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and there is speculation that the Milo facility would house immigration detainees. But those involved in the negotiations said the company has not indicated what prisoners would be housed there.

The idea of private prisons for Maine was criticized at the hearing by a young woman from Waldo County, who connected CCA to the drafting of the Arizona law, which she described as racist. She was gaveled out of order by Committee Chairman Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, prompting two others at the hearing to get up and walk out of the hearing, shouting, “What about free speech?”

Also criticizing the track record of private prison companies was Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Noting that LD 1095 fails to include any provision for oversight of Maine prisoners in private facilities, Bellows cautioned that “private prison corporations in other states have been found guilty of illegal corruption schemes, paying kickbacks to judges and elected officials to secure contracts for the transport of more prisoners to their facilities.”

Bellows cited a 2004 report by the Federal Probation Journal stating that private prisons had an almost 50 percent higher record of inmate-on-staff assaults, compared to similar public prisons.

“In March of last year, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a CCA facility in Idaho charging that officials at that facility promoted and facilitated a culture of violence that led to extreme carnage and suffering there. In San Diego, the ACLU sued CCA for allowing illegal levels of overcrowing and denial of medical care.”

The ACLU lawsuit against the Idaho facility asks for class action status and $155 million in damages, charging that the guards in the extremely violent prison deliberately expose inmates to beatings from other prisoners as a management tool. According to an Associated Press report, the ACLU charged that the prison was so violent it was known as a “gladiator school” among inmates and that guards denied medical care as a way to save money and hide the extent of inmates’ injuries.

This past November, the Idaho Correctional Center was again in the news when a video surfaced of prison guards watching an inmate beat up another.

Bellows said there had been suits against another private prison corporation for violations at a Mississippi juvenile facility.

More cells may not be needed

While it was difficult to discern the attitude of the committee at Friday's hearing, the fact was raised by more than one legislator that Maine’s prisons are not overcrowded, and the state does not need the extra bed space. Legislators also alluded to a new private prison that has been built in New Hampshire that has had difficulty filling its beds.

But with its recent meeting with Gov. LePage, and its interests represented by well-known Augusta lobbyists and potentially backed by a Republican Legislature, CCA may have momentum in a renewed campaign to build a prison in Milo.

While the outcome is unclear, lobbyist Mitchell cautioned the legislators that passing LD 1095, authorizing transferring Maine prisoners to private prisons, was no guarantee that CCA would build the Milo facility.

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