Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Private prison system has proven incapable of serving Nevada justly

By refusing to take no for an answer on a bill to bar the state of Nevada from contracting with private prisons, Nevada Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno deserves a hand.

Monroe-Moreno, a former corrections officer, spearheaded a version of the bill during the 2017 session and helped lead it to passage in the Legislature only to see former Gov. Brian Sandoval veto it.

That was a bad call by Sandoval, and Monroe-Moreno did the right thing for Nevada by reintroducing the proposal.

Private prisons are rotten to their core concept, in which the needs of investors come before the obligation to provide humane treatment to inmates.

As the industry flourished amid the war on drugs and other get-tough-on-crime legislation in recent decades, the problems with privatization have been documented over and over again. Among them:

Safety issues. The pressure to produce profits can prompt prisons to cut costs by hiring fewer guards, spending less to train them and offering meager pay, which can reduce the quality of candidates interested in vacant positions. Not surprisingly, a 2016 report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General revealed a significantly higher amount of violence in private federal prisons compared with public facilities. That was the case for both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff attacks.

Inmate rehabilitation and housing conditions. Cost-cutting has led to inadequate medical services, limited educational and vocational opportunities for inmates, and poor sanitary conditions being reported at some facilities.

Corruption of justice. For the $5 billion private prison industry, mass incarceration offers a financial incentive. So even as crime was declining, companies were spending millions on lobbying efforts in Washington and at state capitals in support of legislation to support punitive criminal justice policies. Then there was the infamous 2008 “cash for kids” scandal in which two judges in Pennsylvania were sent to federal prison for taking money to impose harsh adjudications on juveniles to boost the population of private detention centers.

Today, private prisons hold slightly less than 10 percent of all U.S. prisoners, including some 75 percent of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Among those are about 200 Nevada prisoners who were sent to a private facility in Arizona during 2017.

Public accountability. A common criticism of private prisons is that they operate less transparently than government-operated facilities.

Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether private prisons are even more cost-effective, which was the rationale under which they were created.

So for those reasons and others, here’s hoping lawmakers run with Monroe-Moreno’s bill. It’s a good companion to a package of justice reforms aimed at easing overcrowding in Nevada’s prisons and eliminating punitive sentencing policies that disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities.

In vetoing it, Sandoval cited the need for flexibility in dealing with short-term overcrowding problems, which was not an invalid concern.

But under a waiting period built into the bill, the law wouldn’t go into effect for three more years. That gives the state time to look for alternatives or to at least get started in adding beds to the prison system if needed. With justice reforms possibly on the way, that could help stem overcrowding as well.

But in contending with the prison population, Nevada should be focusing on ways we can handle it ourselves without relying on privatization.

The record on private prisons shows starkly that they’re not an acceptable solution.