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Published March 7, 2013 5:07 pm

Private prison should be off the table
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A questionable idea that has been moving rapidly through the Utah Senate was altered the other day in a way that makes it even more dubious. That's why it was good to hear that, when the bill gets over to the House, Speaker Becky Lockhart will have a lot of questions about the plan and why some people seem to be in such a hurry.

We already knew that some senators are disturbingly eager to tear down the Utah State Prison and sell the underlying land for private development. But the most recent version of SB72, which passed the Senate Tuesday, contemplates turning the prison operation over to a for-profit business.

If that's the direction our lawmakers want to go, better that the whole scheme be abandoned now.

It has long been a hard sell, even to some Republicans, for those who want to raze the prison in Draper and build a new, supposedly more efficient, lockup somewhere off the beaten path. The only clear beneficiaries would be the brokers, developers, builders, etc., who would have a crack at a prime piece of land right in the state's busiest growth corridor.

The decision by sponsoring Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, to add language that would direct the Prison Relocation and Development Authority to not only seek proposals for the construction of a new prison, but also for its operation by a private vendor, is a business plan Utah should have no part of. The incentives are all wrong.

When the state runs a prison it, at least in theory, has the same interests as most citizens. Those interests include keeping the prison population as low as possible, and providing the inmates it does have with education, treatment and other services to increase the possibility that, when those prisoners are released, they won't come back.

A private, for-profit prison will have completely different drivers. It's bottom-line thinking will push it to seek as many prisoners as possible, and to provide those prisoners with as few services as possible, not only because the services are expensive, but also because, in the eyes of a profit-making prison, recidivism is good for business.

The United States is already the shame of the world, with incarceration rates that are by far the largest on the planet, and run some five times higher than civilized nations such as Australia and the U.K. But with a private prison in place, Utah lawmakers will be the target of extensive, and well-funded, lobbying efforts to keep it that way, with absurdly long sentences for minor offenders, pot smokers and illegal aliens.

The longer this idea is considered, the uglier it gets.




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