Prison construction and repairs is the costliest line item in Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s $760 million capital investment plan, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Yesterday, a committee of the state House looked to the private sector for ways to lock up criminals at less cost. “We want to look at what the options might be,” said Capital Investment Committee Chairman Phil Krinkie. Six executives of for-profit prison companies headquartered in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas obliged him.
In 1997, the legislature rejected private prison proposals and spent $89 million to build the 950-bed Rush City prison. It opened in late 1999, but the state is running out of space for inmates and plans to add more than 1,000 beds to one medium-security lockup at a cost of $109 million.
Corrections Corp. of America of Nashville, Tenn., the Cornell Companies Inc. of Houston, and the GEO Group Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., said they could build comparable state-of-the-art prisons faster and cheaper and run them for as much as 20 percent less than the state can. “Competition helps government focus on efficiencies, and it just makes the system better,” said Tony Grande of Corrections Corp., the industry leader with 65,000 prison beds in 20 states, including the 1,390-bed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn.
Dennis Benson, deputy corrections commissioner, argued that, when all costs are figured the state can do the job cheaper and better than private businesses can. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, wondered how private companies could make profits, pay for sales and promotion, and save money except by paying much lower wages. That’s easy, Krinkie said, cutting off replies from the executives: “Everybody knows government is the least efficient provider of any good or service.”
Some executives said they do pay lower wages than government does, largely because many of their prisons are in depressed rural areas that need the economic development. In addition, most of their prisons are not unionized.