McEntee: Beware of any move to privatize Utah's prisons
Ever notice how Utah legislators like to keep their hottest and most controversial bills under wraps until the very end of the annual session? Particularly if there's a nugget that might rile the public into an incendiary state?
In 2011, it was the gutting of the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) and its subsequent restoration after a near-revolution by the public.
Last year, the Legislature passed a ridiculous series of bills that would, contrary to the Utah Constitution and the 1894 Utah Enabling Act, seize most federal lands and give them to the state.
This time, it's a replay of a 2011 plot to demolish the Utah State Prison in Draper, move it to who knows where and let developers and property managers wheel and deal and make yet another great big suburb in the southernmost Salt Lake Valley.
You'd think, given that lawmakers have 45 days to ponder proposals, study implications, make judgments and vote not only on their positions but their consciences, that they'd want to see the tough stuff early on.
Evidently not. On Tuesday, Sen. Scott Jenkins brought out SB72S4 the fourth substitute version of a bill that's been in the public eye for about a week and slingshot it through the Utah Senate.
This time around, though, the bill opens the door for private companies to submit requests for proposals to build and operate a new prison.
Private prisons have been around for quite a while, and they've proven to be a terrible idea. Operators usually promise big savings, but companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) can make big money while incarceration rates have skyrocketed nationwide.
About a year ago, the Arizona Republic reported that the state spent about $10 million more for private beds between 2008 and 2010 than it would have for equivalent state beds, based on a report by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker watchdog group.
The report also said that during the prior three years, private prisons in Arizona experienced at least 28 riots and more than 200 other "disturbances."
In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union reported, among other things, that nationally, the "two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion in revenues" and that top executives earned annual compensation packages worth more than $3 million.
Just last month, the NAACP warned of racial disparities not only in the criminal justice system but in for-profit prisons and reiterated its call for their abolishment.
It's worth noting, too, that the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, of which dozens of Republican legislators are members, had long endorsed private prisons before a recent about-face.
There are so many questions about a prison relocation, not least the future of inmates, prison employees, volunteers and all their families and friends.
SB72S4 is now in the House, meaning that all of us must pay attention because, as we've seen before, such bills can turn out to be even more irrational and expensive than meets the eye.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.
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