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Goodbye to private prisons

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Utah's decision to forget about plans to allow a fully private prison near Grantsville is a good thing. Unfortunately, it should have been made earlier, before the city of Grantsville extended a waterline to the proposed prison site and before the private contractor incurred some costs.

The Department of Corrections said the decision was purely economical. Given current financial realities, county jails in Beaver and Millard counties could house state inmates cheaper than could the private prison contractor. That is certainly a triumph of responsible governing, but the state should reject private prisons for other, more basic reasons. When a state divests itself of a prison, it moves the public a step away from a service that is vital to society's general welfare.

Prisons protect people from dangerous criminals, and they have a duty to rehabilitate those criminals before once again turning them loose. Private prisons are not as open to independent oversight as public facilities, making it harder to know whether the public is adequately protected. And when things go wrong, information can run like molasses.

It isn't as if this is a profoundly new idea. Nearly 200 private prisons now operate nationwide. Most have been relatively trouble-free. But the few that have failed have put the public at great risk.

Last year, a New York Times report documented some of these troubles. At a facility in Youngstown, Ohio, violence and escapes became a regular way of life from the beginning. Twenty inmates were stabbed during the first month. Six escaped in broad daylight, including two murderers. Utah sent 100 of its own inmates to a private facility in Texas four years ago. Six of them walked away at various times, and Texas authorities were reluctant to chase them down because at the time there was no state law against escaping a private prison.

The contractor Utah chose, Cornell Corrections, has a good track record. Still, was the state prepared to handle serious problems if they arose? Did it have enough control over policies at the facility? Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that set high standards for training and liability insurance at private prisons. It also required them to make all records accessible to the state.

But the bill did not prevent a private prison from deciding to accept inmates from other states, nor from accepting violent offenders. Neither did it provide for public access to records.

Privatization is sound public policy only when a clear profit motive exists. That motive gets a bit fuzzy when the subject is the warehousing of humans. The main motive becomes one of cost savings. Large private corporations can save money through volume discounts and other economies of scale. They also generally pay their guards less. Some of them also scrimp on safety items, as has been painfully obvious. Utah has had good experiences with a private facility that helps inmates transition back into society's mainstream near the end of their sentences, but a fully privatized facility is quite another thing.

For now, Utahns won't have to worry about this. However, Corrections executive director Pete Haun has made it clear the state isn't abandoning the idea, should it once again become economically attractive. We hope that day never comes. In the meantime, however, state lawmakers and the governor should seriously reconsider whether money should be the overriding factor.