ATLANTA - Concerns over whether Georgia's private prisons are safe surfaced Wednesday as lawmakers considered a bill that would ban companies from shipping inmates into the state for profit.
In a hearing before the House committee that oversees prisons, opponents argued that private prisons, particularly those housing out-of-state prisoners, have higher escape rates, more violence and lower salaries and benefits for employees than state facilities.
But lawmakers and business leaders from the rural, south Georgia counties where the private prisons are located say they have been an economic boon to the job-starved areas that need help the most.
Rep. Chuck Sims, D-Douglas, has sponsored a bill that would prevent companies from building a private prison unless they have a contract to house state or federal inmates.
Mr. Sims, who represents Coffee County, home of a private prison, said he fears bringing in prisoners from other states would cost Georgia money in the form of additional court costs, health care and law enforcement.
"I don't think the state of Georgia needs to pay for other people's problems," he said.
At least three private prisons currently operate in the state, all with contracts with the state or federal government.
The nation's largest private prison company, Corrections Corp. of America, runs two for-profit prisons in Georgia - in Wheeler and Coffee counties.
The facilities house as many as 1,500 inmates each and together employ about 650 people.
The company has completed another facility in McRae and has a fourth under construction in Stewart County.
But critics fear the company's plan to contract with other states, including possibly Hawaii, to bring in prisoners could be a recipe for trouble.
"I'm very alarmed at hearing we approve of holding human beings captive for profit," said Murphy Davis, a Presbyterian minister from Atlanta and director of Southern Prison Ministry. "To hold people for gain in private hands is slavery."
Others who spoke in favor of the bill to the House committee on State Institutions and Property said private prisons too often cut corners to make a profit.
That, they said, leads to poor pay for employees, poor care and programs for inmates and a situation more prone to lead to escape attempts, riots and other violence.
But residents of the counties, which have seen textile, farming and other jobs dwindle even as the rest of the state has flourished, said anything that creates jobs is good news.
Edison McDonald, a member of the Telfair County Chamber of Commerce, compared the situation to a story about a hunter who, when attacked by a panther, urged his friends to shoot, killing either him or the panther.
"He said, `Shoot up here amongst us; it can't be ... worse than what I'm going through,"' Mr. McDonald said.
Lawmakers from the area, where unemployment ranks among the state's highest, agreed.
"This is an issue of local control," said Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, one of several south Georgia lawmakers who spoke in defense of the private prisons. "This is an issue of a community that wanted to provide jobs ... deciding this would be a clean, well-run, environmentally friendly industry."
A spokesman for the Nashville-based CCA said critics' fears about high escape rates are unfounded, and that the company's Georgia facilities have been approved by strict oversight committees.
The final decisions about how they are run, he said, still rests with the state governments that contract with them.
"We do not replace the responsibility," spokesman Steve Owen said. "The responsibility always remains with the government.
"We're simply providing an alternative that corrections agencies can utilize."
The committee is expected to vote on whether to recommend the bill to the whole House next week.
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