Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2017

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A terrible idea

Considering past failures with private prisons, state shouldn’t consider Rachel plan

Nevada’s prison overcrowding problem could be eased with a private prison in the tiny town of Rachel, a developer says.

As Mike Trask reported in last Sunday’s Las Vegas Sun, Jim Toreson wants to turn the hamlet of about 65 people — best known as the sleepy settlement closest to the federal government’s not-so-secret Area 51 — into a bustling community built around a 2,000-bed prison.

That might interest the state bureaucrats trying to deal with prison overcrowding and Gov. Jim Gibbons, who loves to talk about privatizing government services. He likes to say that government would be better if it were run more like a business. That is music to the ears of the anti-government crowd, which will likely find merit in Toreson’s proposal.

However, anyone who thinks a private prison is a panacea hasn’t been paying attention. Only a few years ago Nevada turned over some of the operations of the prison system to private companies. Those companies were supposed to show the state how the prisons could be run more efficiently, saving taxpayers money.

That might have sounded great at the time, but it turned into a disaster.

For example, there were complaints that a women’s prison in North Las Vegas, built and operated by a private company, was deteriorating as the company complained it wasn’t making enough money. Inside the prison walls, things were grim as well — a guard impregnated a prisoner.

The state also had private companies run the medical program at the high-security prison in Ely as well as a youth corrections facility. The private companies’ promises of efficient, cost-effective operations never panned out.

In 2004 then-Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, pulled the plug on the program, and the state took over operations at all of those facilities, leaving the taxpayers on the hook to clean up the private companies’ messes.

Nevada’s experience with private prisons is reason enough to not pursue the Rachel plan. To think otherwise is foolish.

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