Private prison interest strong for New Hampshire
The strong response reflects the unusual opportunity presented by the RFP, which places no limits on the size and makes no specification about the location of a facility. The main requirement is that the facility be capable of accommodating, at minimum, the approximately 1,500 inmates at the state's largest and oldest penitentiary, the State Prison for Men in Concord. A parallel proposal calls for replacing the women's prison in Goffstown. Under the proposals, bidders can propose to build the facilities or also take over their operation.
'It's probably one of the more unique and creative (RFPs) put out for some time,' said Eli Gage, the publisher of Correctional News, a national publication that covers trends in prison construction. 'The state has given the ability to leave things (a bidder) is open to do or not do, depending on what they like. Even some in the industry say it's the best RFP they've seen in a while.'
Gage added, 'This is pretty much an all-star cast of characters. They're big players that take it seriously.'
Among the companies that have dispatched teams to New Hampshire are the three largest private prison operators in the world: the Corrections Corporation of America, the Geo Group, and the Management and Training Corp.
CCA and the Geo Group alone have a prisoner capacity of more than 170,000, some housed in overseas facilities. The companies took in close to $3 billion in revenue in 2010.
Human rights groups have criticized the private prison industry, saying the profit motive compromises public safety and leads to prisoner mistreatment. Industry supporters reject such charges and argue that private prisons are a cost-effective way for states to control swelling corrections budgets while meeting demand for additional space.
Other companies that have expressed interest in the RFP include both local and national construction firms, according to a sign-in sheet from a November meeting convened by the Department Administrative Services, which is overseeing the process.
The RFP could potentially give a contractor a chance to build and run one of the only private prisons in the region, and the document explicitly states that bidders can submit plans for a larger facility 'to accommodate regional correctional needs.'
Prison budget woes and crowding have been problems across New England. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections released a report stating that it would have a 12,000-bed shortage by 2020 unless billions of dollars are spent to upgrade and expand facilities.
'The reality is all states are overcrowded,' said Gage, the prison construction expert. 'Everybody is at capacity. Some these facilities were built 20 years ago and have now become outdated.'
And some facilities, namely the state prison in Concord, were built well over 100 years ago. The cost of regular repairs, maintenance and utilities is the main impetus for the state's RFP.
But this raises the difficult question: where to build?
Representatives with the prison company MTC barely had a chance to make their pitch before officials in Litchfield, who were initially receptive to the idea, then nixed the idea of a facility in their community. In Manchester, residents who live in the Hackett Hill area, where a local developer has proposed placing a prison on a site slated for an industrial park, signed a petition against the plan. City officials, meanwhile, are looking at crafting new zoning guidelines that would steer a prison away from the area.
'I think for an end-use like a prison, it's going to be a challenge, no matter where it goes,' said Thomas Farrelly, the director of the Manchester office of Cushman and Wakefield, the commercial real estate broker. 'You obviously want to place them where there's ample supply of labor and in a geographic location that makes it relatively easy to get to.'
Gage agreed that any prison would likely have to be located near a population center and major roadways, in the interest transporting prisoners and the day-to-day business of the facility. 'Lawyers have to meet with their clients,' Gage said.
This may explain why many of the questions submitted by the prison contractors to state officials have focused on existing facilities, including the State Prison in Concord, where a tour for prospective vendors is scheduled for Thursday.
In response to a question concerning the possibility of refurbishing the Concord site, the DAS wrote: 'It is the State's intent to result in a modern, efficient facility. A vendor that believes this goal may be achieved via an 'add-on and/or renovate' proposal ... should structure their proposal in that manner. The Concord facility in its current condition does not meet this goal.'
Proposals must be submitted to the state by Feb. 24.