Advertisement

Privatizing prisons?

May 20, 1997

When West Virginia's Regional Jail Authority asked Gov. Cecil Underwood to authorize construction of a 1,200-inmate medium-security facility on Monday, the governor said he was considering the possibility that a private company might do a better job of housing state inmates. We agree that it's time to think about going another way.

We say that for several reasons. The jail authority's estimate for construction of the new prison is $50 to $70 million. That's about half the money set aside for prison and jail construction in the entire state in 1997, especially when authority officials expect it to be so overcrowded in 10 years that they'll have to start double-bunking inmates.

Frankly, we have little faith in this agency's ability. In 1989, just six years after the Eastern Regional Jail was built in Berkeley County, the authority announced it was obsolete and couldn't be expanded to handle a growing inmate population. This past February, as it prepared prison cost estimates for the legislature, the authority revealed that some estimates had doubled in a year's time and that millions more would be needed to complete the construction program.

Advertisement

For example, the estimate for the new Regional Jail in Berkeley County jumped from $7.8 million to $13 million. We said at the time that even allowing for inflation, the cost of construction hasn't doubled in a year's time. Part of the problem seems to be that with no incentive to keep a lid on costs, the jail authority has let them soar sky-high.

Let us suggest a method for bringing it back to earth: Draw up specifications for this new prison and select a private company to operate it. As a first step, the company would put the 1,200-inmate medium-security facility out to bids, with the proviso that it cost no more than $25 million.

We're confident that the profit motive will do two things: Give the private firm operating the prison a big incentive to make sure construction is top quality, to reduce the cost of maintenance and up it earnings, and keep the state from building a Taj Mahal when what it really needs is a barracks.

The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|