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Statehouse Beat: Private prison company looking at W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the Division of Corrections prepares to open bids Thursday on a contract to house up to 400 prison inmates in private out-of-state facilities, there has been much commentary critical of private, for-profit prisons in general, and the practice of shipping prisoners to out-of-state prisons in particular.

Most recently, Charlotte-based Grassroots Leadership published a report, "Locked Up and Shipped Away: Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry," which looked at four states - California, Hawaii, Vermont and Idaho - that house inmates in out-of-state Corrections Corporation of America prisons.

"Nothing runs more contrary to the goals of public safety, rehabilitation, and justice than an industry that profits from keeping people caged," the report concludes.

"The devastating consequences of failed criminal justice policies and for-profit incarceration -- violence, human rights violations, and neglect stemming from mismanagement, understaffing and a lack of oversight -- are further exacerbated when prisoners are transferred to private prisons away from their home state."

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While the request for bids for a contract to house up to 400 Corrections inmates currently housed in regional jails because of prison overcrowding went out in September, Corrections Corporation of America has been looking at West Virginia as a prospective "market" for at least two years, according to transcripts from CCA's Earnings Conference Call to investors last month.

Said Damon T. Hininger, CEO and president of CCA: "So, we actually have been working on West Virginia for about two years. It's been part of that group of six [states] that we've been targeting. And you heard the numbers I mentioned earlier, where they're dealing with significant overcrowding today, but looking to grow by about another, I think, 1,700 over the next few years."

"We've been reporting for several quarters our pursuit of new state prospects, with significant projected overcrowding in the next five years, and West Virginia is one of those states we've been pursuing. West Virginia has (an RFP) for 400 beds on the street, and proposals are due on Nov. 26. [Since pushed back to Dec. 5.] We think our available capacity will be very attractive to them."

At one point in the subsequent Q-and-A session, Hininger is asked whether he sees higher expectations for more states sending inmates out-of-state. Hininger responds that he sees a changing dynamic as more states, led by California, use out-of-state prisons:

"I think having those states take that action, and those being good solutions, provided good quality and good value, I think as states think about kind of short-term, long-term needs like at West Virginia, they see that as a very viable option, say, compared to a decade ago. Having the largest state agency in the country with California using a lot of beds out-of-state, I think that gives the ability for states like West Virginia to look at that track record, look at performance, and say, [OK], that's a viable solution and an opportunity for significant value."*

Speaking of, I had an odd conversation last week with former Associated Press reporter turned flack Lawrence Messina regarding a recent item about a letter from a Regional Jail correctional officer upset that the Regional Jail Authority's new computer-assisted scheduling system had eliminated the overtime he relied on to make a decent wage.

Messina wanted to see the letter, saying that although it was addressed to RJA executive director Joe DeLong, they could not find where the original had been delivered to the central office.

I suggested that would not be appropriate, since it was given to me in confidence. Though unsigned, I was concerned it might be possible to identify the officer by looking at the typeface of the letter, or more likely, through information included in the body of the letter about his career, and about specific jail operations.

Then I was completely floored when Messina said he wanted to see the letter to verify I hadn't made it up. Made it up? Do you think I would have stayed in this job for coming up on 29 years by making up stories?

Suffice to say, I told him the conversation was over and hung up. Certainly not what I would have expected from someone with so many years in the news business.

(For the record, if an independent, third-party would like to verify the existence of the letter, I have it in the press room.) *

Finally, House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, irked some constituents when he was on the sidelines for West Virginia University's epic Orange Bowl rout of Clemson, and was clearly visible in photos and video of the post-game interview with coach Dana Holgorsen.

Perdue had an opportunity to make amends with Marshall fans while attending the State Government Affairs Council's 2013 Leaders Policy Conference last month in Miami, where he got a sideline pass for Marshall's game against FIU (whatever a FIU is ...), even posing for a picture with the mascot to verify his attendance.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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