A brand-new Parish Prison is an expensive proposition and likely a tough sell for tax-fatigued voters, but a handful of Metro Council members say they think there’s a way to build it without a tax increase.
Several of the Republican members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council are floating privatization as a possible solution to pleas from law enforcement leaders for a new jail to replace the one they say is too small and outmoded.
The idea is that a private company builds the new jail, staffs it with its own guards, and the local government pays the company — typically at a price per head — for inmate expenses in order to make a profit.
While private prisons are becoming a more familiar concept across the country, officials with both Mayor-President Kip Holden’s office and the Sheriff’s Office, which jointly maintain and operate the jail, say they have serious doubts about whether privatization would be effective. And criminal justice advocates argue that profiting off of the prison system is a questionable practice, potentially resulting in worse conditions and higher incarceration rates.
Holden and law enforcement leaders recently spent about a month touting a $335 million public safety tax plan, which featured plans to build a new, larger $200 million prison. But the Metro Council voted against sending the proposal to voters this May, with some members accusing the Mayor’s Office of rushing to a tax increase without vetting other financing options.
Now, some council members say the next step should be soliciting proposals or bids from private firms with experience in running prisons.
“We need to see what’s out there,” Councilman Buddy Amoroso said. “There are companies that specialize in privatizing prisons and we don’t know that it’s not an option until we go out with a (request for proposals).”
Along with Amoroso, council members Ryan Heck, Trae Welch, Joel Boé, Chandler Loupe and John Delgado have all expressed interest in privatizing jail services as a way to get a new, larger prison built in the parish.
Delgado said he was alarmed to learn that the city-parish pays substantially less per inmate for those who are sent to other parish jails because of overcrowding than it does for inmates who are housed in the Baton Rouge facility.
The cost for housing an inmate in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison is about $37 per day for inmate costs including food, supplies, and the salaries for prison guards and staff, compared to $25 per day for the hundreds of prisoners sent out of the parish because of lack of bed space.
Warden Dennis Grimes estimated to the Metro Council that the number per day in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison could actually be about $60 to $70, a figure that also takes into consideration factors like the cost of the facility and prisoner medical care.
“Obviously, we could just save $40 a day per prisoner if we just put them all in private prisons,” Delgado said. “It’s going to take political willingness to say, ‘Hey, we’re not running our jail efficiently, so we’re hiring someone to come do this for us.’ ”
Parish officials skeptical
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Holden, said the Mayor’s Office isn’t ready to put out a formal request for proposals because they aren’t convinced the model will work.
The city-parish or the Sheriff’s Office would still be responsible for paying the private firm for the services, and Daniel said it’s unclear where that revenue stream would come from. Currently, the Sheriff’s Office provides the staffing and security of the Parish Prison, funded through a property tax for his operations. The city-parish pays for the infrastructure of the jail.
If a private company ran the jail, it would likely displace the sheriff’s deputies who are charged with manning the facility.
Delgado said it’s possible that some deputies could be cut or take on jobs with the private firm, and the savings from those open positions could be used to fund the service.
Each parish’s sheriff has constitutional authority to provide for the security of parish inmates, which means that Sheriff Sid Gautreaux would have to agree to hand over control.
In an email, Gautreaux said private companies lack transparency, public accountability and are known to cut corners. He said it would reduce his role to a “middle man” and that he “would not be fulfilling one of the core functions he is elected to fulfill.”
Opponents of privatization also note that private companies rarely spend money to provide rehabilitation or programs for prisoners while they’re in custody that aim to curb recidivism.
At least one firm, Johnson Controls, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company, submitted an informal 11-page estimate for construction and prison services, according to a public record request. The report estimated it could build a 3,000-bed jail for $144 million. It also estimated that the city-parish would pay the company about $13 million per year for 30 years to pay off the construction and service costs.
Daniel said he’s open to having conversations with companies, adding that more have been reaching out to the city-parish in recent weeks.
“A couple people have approached us since that council meeting, but my initial conversations with them have me somewhat pessimistic,” Daniel said.
Critics decry privatization
The number of privately owned and operated prisons is growing nationwide and has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry.
In Louisiana, there are no privately owned parish jails. The Baton Rouge jail holds mostly pretrial detainees.
There are 10 state prisons that house state prisoners who are serving out their sentences. Two of those state correctional centers are privately run.
Critics of privatization note that the business model relies on higher rates of incarceration and often requires governments to guarantee that beds will be filled to a certain capacity to ensure their profit margins.
“There is a moral issue here,” ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman said. “That we would be incarcerating people for profit is repugnant. We ought not to be creating a profit motive to lock people up.”
Esman said she disagrees that Baton Rouge needs a new prison at all. She said it would be better for the city-parish to focus its energy on lowering its high incarceration rates.
Louisiana is a worldwide leader for incarceration rates, and Baton Rouge’s incarceration rate is double the national average for an urban county.
“One can reasonably debate about privatizing parking meters,” said Jon Wool, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans. “But when it comes to public safety and people’s liberty, government leaders need to make decisions based on what is effective, not what they can get someone else to pay for or who in power might profit.”
Advocate reporter Ben Wallace contributed to this article. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.