There were too many supporters of keeping the three prisons under state control to fit into the room for the House Appropriations Committee hearing so about 20 had to be seated in another hearing room down the hall where they could watch the proceeds on closed-circuit TV.
Those opposed to the takeover of the prisons by private companies had only about an hour in which to speak before the full House convened at 10 a.m. and committee Chairman Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro) said there would be a recess and the committee would reconvene later in the day.
House Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Terrytown), however, adjourned the House at mid-afternoon because, he said, there were glitches in the Senate’s congressional reapportionment bill.
Two of the three facilities under consideration to be sold are already run by private companies even though the prisons and grounds are still owned by the state. Two companies, Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) of Nashville, which operates the Winn prison, and GEO of Boca Raton, FL, which runs the Allen Parish facility, have already indicated their desire to bid on the purchase of the state prisons.
Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle told the legislators to consider the proposed sales carefully. “These private companies are in the business to make money and to do so, they will reduce staff, cut salaries and benefits, and do whatever else they can do to keep costs down,” he said.
Riddle said the private companies would attempt to filter out the problem prisoners so that fewer guards would be needed. Medical care, he said, would be provided by the private companies for only two days. “After that, their care will revert back to the state. No one has addressed this issue,” he said.
Riddle, a former legislator, said selling assets to pay operating expenses “is bad government. Frankly, I’m surprised that our ‘good government’ governor would ever come up with this idea,” he said. “I am going to work to rid the state of private prisons. I am against selling inmates to the highest bidder.”
Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Marksville), who is not a committee member, testified briefly to oppose the sale. “I can see the anxiety and the fear that these individuals have on their faces,” he said.
Former Congressman Claude “Buddy” Leach, who ran against Jindal in 2005, and who now chairs the State Democratic Party, said, “In business, you have to make a profit and I know where profits come from. The Avoyelles Parish facility sits on 1200 acres of prime land and to say that facility, with the lane, is worth only $33 million is ridiculous. It’s more than stupidity.”
Outside the meeting room, Leach told Capitol News Service that he was opposed to selling prisons to private groups to make a profit. “We’ve already tried that,” he said, “and we had a lot of problems.”
He would specify which facility he was referring to but the state has experienced such problems with the privately-run juvenile detention facilities in Tallulah in Madison Parish and Jena in LaSalle Parish that both facilities were subsequently shut down.
Raymond LaBorde, commissioner of administration under Gov. Edwin Edwards, made the most passionate case against selling the prisons.
“I’m told the state wants to sell the prisons below appraised value so they can negotiate for a low per diem (the daily rate the state would then pay the new owners to house state prisoners).
“I have talked to appraisers about the proposed sale of the Avoyelles prison and when I throw out the $33 million, they laugh at me,” LaBorde said. “That facility has 1200 acres and they grown their own farm products. That’s good land and the appraisers tell me the state would be crazy to sell it that cheaply.
When they built that prison (Avoyelles), the unemployment rate in our parish was 9 percent. The prison has provided a livelihood for our people and now they’re trying to destroy that. We have a very low turnover rate there. We have personnel who have been there 20 years,” he said.
The state pays parish sheriffs all over the state slightly more than $31 per day per prisoner to house state prisoners now and preliminary proposals from several private concerns that have indicated an interest in purchasing the prisons have quoted figures in the $40 per day range.
The federal government presently pays about $100 per day to house illegal aliens and the fear is that if a private concern purchases the state facilities, when the contract with the state expires, the companies will turn to the federal government to negotiate the higher rate, leaving the state with nowhere to put its prisoners.
“When are they (the Jindal administration) going to use some common sense?” he asked. “How about this: sell your house way below appraised value and then rent it back tomorrow. You think that makes good business sense?” LaBorde asked.
Besides Fannin, committee members who attended Thursday’s meeting included Reps. Mickey Guillory (D-Eunice), Noble Ellington (R-Winnsboro), Mack “Bodi” White (R-Denham Springs), Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte), Lowell C. Hazel (R-Pineville), Charles Chaney (R-Rayville), James Armes, III (D-Leesville), Patrick Cortez (R-Lafayette), Scott Simon (R-Abita Springs), Patrick Connick (R-Marrero), Patrick C. Williams (D-Shreveport), committee Co-Chairman Eddie J. Lambert (R-Gonzales), Brett Geymann (R-Lake Charles), M.J. “Mert” Smiley (R-Port Vincent), Charmaine Stiaes (D-New Orleans), Gary L. Smith, Jr. (D-Norco), Joe Harrison (R-Gray), and James H. Morris (R-Oil City).
Members not in attendance included Reps. Walt Leger, III (D-New Orleans), Anthony V. Ligi, Jr. (R-Metairie), Tom McVea (R-Jackson), Patricia Haynes Smith (D-Baton Rouge), and ex-officio members House Speaker Pro Tem Joel Robideaux (I-Lafayette), and House Speaker Tucker.
- Story submitted from the Capital News Service