Originally created 04/27/97

Privatized-prisons risk-free, state says



NICHOLLS, Ga. - A privately built and operated 500-bed prison is coming to this south Georgia town, one of two guinea pigs for Georgia's experiment with for-profit prisons.

For Nicholls, the new prison will mean 167 jobs - 90 percent of which will be filled locally. It is cause to celebrate in an economically strapped rural town.

"The city of Atlanta got the Olympics, but the city of Nicholls got the gold," said state Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls.

U.S. Corrections Corps. has contracted with the state to build two prisons - one in Nicholls, the other in Alamo, 45 miles north. The prisons will be medium- and minimum-security.

The company says the prisons will be running by 1998 while saving the state money. Though prisons cost the state $54.14 a day for each inmate, U.S. Corrections says it can do the same for $36.80.

Joe Tanner, head of Gov. Zell Miller's commission on privatization, is sold.

"Private-sector companies have a motivation to control costs, called profit," Mr. Tanner said. "The problem you have with the government is that, by its very nature, it tends not to reward people who cut costs by reducing their budget."

Critics of privatized prisons warn that companies motivated by profits may skimp on things such as the number of employees and their salaries - making prisons less secure because they're run by fewer people with less experience and training.

"With money like that, the company's going to have to cut corners or they can't do it," said Tyrone Freeman, head of the state employee's union.

Private prison guards will have to undergo state training and certification. Salaries haven't been set, though currently Georgia prison guards start at about $19,000 a year.

The private prisons will be able to get by with fewer guards because they'll use state-of-the-art designs and monitoring equipment, said Raoul Cunningham, a spokesman for U.S. Corrections.

"The design of the facility makes a big difference," Mr. Cunningham said. "A lot of prisons have blind spots and therefore you need security just to cover your blind spot. Our prisons have the best possible design and still give you full security."

The state will keep watch over the prisons using full-time monitors who will constantly report back to Atlanta, Tanner said.

"The state is taking a very minimal risk," he said. "It's not putting up any money and giving no guarantees."

Fraud charges against two men associated with the company failed to scare Georgia officials away from the deal.

In 1995, Clifford Todd, chairman of the company's board, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for mail fraud after he pleaded guilty to bribing a Kentucky official with $196,999. Todd is appealing the sentence and remains free on bond.

Last year, Arvie Lee Lockhart, a former senior vice president of U.S. Corrections, was indicted on charges that he defrauded the state of Arkansas while serving as corrections commissioner. His trial is scheduled to start this summer.

Cunningham said the company reported Todd to the Justice Department and pointed out that Lockhart left U.S. Corrections when he was indicted.