Contractor-operated prisons are the solution

December 4, 2018

An opinion piece by Robert Weiner and Jared Schwartz in The New Mexican mischaracterized contractor-operated prisons (i.e., private prisons) and the reasons states such as New Mexico choose to contract with them (“Justice for corporate bottom line,” My View, Nov. 11).

Over the course of my 31 years in corrections management, including more than two decades with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I have seen the development of corrections service providers and currently serve as the Western Region vice president for the GEO Group, which owns and operates two correctional facilities and manages a third in New Mexico.

When private facilities were first developed, it was not to turn a buck as some argue. One of the catalysts for contractor-run facilities in New Mexico was the 1977 lawsuit Duran v. Apodaca, brought by an inmate who alleged that his basic constitutional rights were violated while serving time in a state-run prison.

The U.S. District Court agreed and, faced with federal court orders to improve the state prison system, the New Mexico Legislature, among other legislative actions, authorized private companies to build and operate facilities. The first opened in New Mexico in 1989.

Critics often misuse a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report to claim that contractor-operated facilities are more dangerous and less effective than government-run facilities. That report failed to account for differences in the demographic makeup of the studied populations — contractor-operated facilities at the federal level house predominantly criminal aliens, while government-run facilities primarily house U.S. citizens — essentially making an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Furthermore, the contractor-operated facilities included in the study arguably had a better safety record when compared to their government-run counterparts, reporting fewer instances of inmate death, drugs, disruptive behavior, uses of force and allegations of staff sexual misconduct against inmates. Additionally, despite claims to the contrary, contracted facilities absolutely operate under the same standards as public facilities and with strict government oversight. From the detailed contracts required for procurement to the on-site, full-time government monitors we have at each of our facilities, no aspect of GEO’s operations is hidden from our government partner, and we have operated in New Mexico under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Finally, claims that prison contractors pressure the government to increase incarceration are simply wrong. The GEO Group does not take policy positions on nor advocate for or against policies impacting criminal justice, immigration enforcement or sentencing. Not only does GEO not lobby on policy matters to increase incarceration, we put significant resources toward helping individuals in our care successfully transition to life after prison. Our enhanced in-custody rehabilitation programming and pre- and post-release support services constitute the GEO Continuum of Care, an evidence-based, voluntary program that is proven to decrease recidivism rates and prepares inmates to be contributing members of their communities upon release. At our first facility to implement the Continuum of Care programming in Florida in 2015, the recidivism rate dropped 35 percent.

We have a long-standing record providing quality rehabilitation programs in New Mexico. Since 2016 alone, we have awarded over 330 GEDs and high school degrees, more than 600 vocational certifications and close to 1,200 substance abuse treatment completions at our New Mexico facilities, and we are proud to have introduced the enhanced Continuum of Care at the Guadalupe Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa in 2016, going above and beyond our contractual obligations.

Contractor-operated facilities in New Mexico and elsewhere are not the problem; they were created to be and continue to serve as the solution.

Paul Laird is GEO Group’s Western Region vice president with direct oversight for GEO’s New Mexico operations and facilities. He lives in Southern California, where GEO’s Western Region office is located.

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