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February 07. 2013 10:30PM

Bill to bar private prisons opposed by corrections commissioner

CONCORD - Opponents of privately operated prisons had their say Thursday, as a legislative committee heard testimony on proposed legislation to ban for-profit correctional facilities in the state.

Complaints about privately run prisons ranged from claims that companies running the facilities would have a financial incentive to keep people in prison to suggestions that in other jurisdictions private jails don't provide promised cost savings.

But state Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn claimed the legislation considered Thursday, House Bill 443, would reduce the ability of his agency to adjust to emergencies.

Private prisons are "needed to manage overpopulation in our facilities in the event of a sudden, unexpected emergency," Wrenn said. "If fire or natural disaster made (a prison) uninhabitable, private facilities could provide necessary bed space in a short period of time."

Supporters of a ban on private prisons range from church groups to the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union to state employee groups.

Devon Chafee, executive director of the NHCLU, said a report by the national organization found mistreatment of inmates.

"A 2011 ACLU report linked certain private prisons to atrocious conditions," she said.

The state last year approved a $171,000 study of the impact of private prisons in New Hampshire.

Last December, the state Executive Council extended the deadline for that report to Feb. 28.

State Rep. Leon Rideout, R-Lancaster, said the study should be finished before the bill is given serious consideration.

"We are wasting taxpayers' money because before we have information on whether to privatized prisons in New Hampshire, we're going to prohibit them."

Rideout complained that prohibiting a private business - the operators of private prisons - from operating in the state is "not the New Hampshire way."

The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Timothy Robertson, D-Keene, said that because the private prisons are paid by the number of inmates, opportunities for prisoners to be rehabilitated or paroled would be reduced because the prison operators would try to keep the prison population high.

"No evidence they can save you money," Robertson said. "The incentive is to get more out of it by keeping them in longer and treating them worse."

The legislation may be sent off to a study committee that will study an assortment of criminal justice related bills filed in the current Legislature.



wsmith@unionleader.com


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