Private Prisons Worth Considering

Like most states today, Washington and Idaho operate prison systems that are seriously overcrowded. In Washington, the prison population is growing so rapidly that the Evergreen State will need to build a 1,900-bed prison every 27 months to meet demand. Meanwhile, in Idaho, the Corrections Department has shipped hundreds of convicts to other states for lack of room.

But rural Idaho may have a solution - one that Washington is blocked from considering due to a Washington state law, the state employees unions and political gutlessness. The solution is privatization.

While Washington politicians fiddle with the problem, Idaho Gov. Phil Batt has ordered his state’s Corrections Department to study private prisons for the Legislature’s Budget Committee. This progressive governor sees two pluses in going private: The state could save money - a lot of money - and a private firm could build a prison quickly, possibly in as little as 18 months.

The growing movement to privatize prisons has promise as well as pitfalls. We’re not yet convinced that it’s the best method to handle the problem of prison overcrowding. But we do view it as an alternative that ought to be explored.taking a serious look at the possibilities, Idaho is far better off than bureaucratic Washington.

A 1983 law and Gov.-elect Gary Locke’s veto pen stand between Washington and a private prison contract. The law bans state union jobs from being shifted to non-union ones. That protects the prison bureaucracy but does nothing to rein in a Corrections Department budget that is expected to reach $1 billion by the year 2000, almost double the spending growth envisioned by Initiative 601.

Concerned Washington legislators aren’t going to waste time trying to change the law despite a legislative Budget Committee report that says private prisons could save money. Locke has promised to veto any move toward privatization.

So much for liberal open-mindedness. Will Locke represent only government’s unions or might he consider also representing the people whom government taxes and serves?

Meanwhile, the number of private prisons in this country has grown from one in 1984 (an immigration detention center in Houston) to more than 100 today.the end of the year, there should be about 135 private prisons supervising 80,000 inmates. That’s impressive growth.

Steven Loux, a policy analyst for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, found that employees at private prisons receive about the same wages and benefits as their state counterparts. During his research, Loux also discovered that private prisons are more cost-effective, less bureaucratic and able to provide equal or better service to prisoners than state-run institutions. The analyst estimated that states realize a savings of more than 10 percent by contracting for prison services.

Just think what Washington could do with that kind of savings.

Locke is being shortsighted to dismiss this promising concept unilaterally. His stance indicates the protection of big government is more important to him than the search for efficiency.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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