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VOL. 119 | NO. 95 | Thursday, June 2, 2005

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Shelby County Commission to decide soon on where to privatize prison system

County Looks at Jail Privatization Offers

Proposals include new construction, savings incentives


The Daily News

Two private prison companies are ramping up their efforts to secure a contract with Shelby County government to manage the Shelby County Correction Center and Downtown jail.

Florida-based The GEO Group Inc., formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corp., has proposed building and operating a new jail and a corrections complex to replace the penal farm on Mullins Station Rd. Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America has made a similar proposal, which calls for building a consolidated jail and corrections center.

Both groups are promising Shelby County millions of dollars in savings.

New construction. Ken Bouldin, executive vice president and chief development officer of CCA, came to town in late May to lobby County Commission members on behalf of the company. He outlined his groups offer, which calls for spending more than $200 million to build a new 3,600-bed prison. As an added incentive, he said CCA is offering $30 million up front, once a contract is signed.

Basically, what we submitted was the following, Bouldin said. We said, look, our analysis is the sheriff has probably done as good a job as he can do with the limitations that he has. And the limitations would be the physical design of the facility and the fact that hes dealing with a public employee union.

So in essence, he may have done all he can do without having a new facility and a new collective bargaining agreement of some type.

Public relations. CCA has organized a major public relations effort to dispel misinformation about the groups plan. Bouldin said CCA hired former local jailer Joe Ponte to give the companys proposal a local perspective. And CCA board member Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the well-known Supreme Court justice, met with community leaders in early March.

Bouldin, who was once an IBM salesman in Memphis with CCA president John Ferguson, spoke to County Commission members last week during breaks in budget hearings. He said the committee studying CCAs and GEOs proposals was supposed to report to the full commission by May 1, but that hasnt happened yet. He said a decision is expected soon.

They seem to be very close to having something to give to commissioners, though, Bouldin said. One of the things that makes me believe they arent quite finished is my staff has informed me as late as a few minutes ago that they continue to ask certain follow-up questions.

The process began in March, when the Shelby County Commission began vetting proposals to find some relief from the countys heavy debt load. The county is spending about 26 percent of its budget on criminal justice, which includes feeding and sheltering about 5,000 inmates in Memphis.

But the proposals have attracted nationwide attention, because if either is accepted, prison industry officials believe it would make Memphis home to the largest private prison system in the country.

Then and now. Thats a major sticking point for private prison opponents like Jeff Woodard, a corrections officer whos worked 16 years at the penal farm.

This is disaster waiting to happen, Woodard said.

He put it this way: In 1990, the County Correction Center was one of the top five in the country in terms of self-sufficiency. Woodard said it cost about $1.80 a day to house each inmate, compared to about $10.65 a day 15 years later.

Corrections officers like myself, we saw this coming down the pike, Woodard said. A group of us I guess you could say led by myself held rallies, pickets, put ads on the radio, whatever we had to do.

In addition, Woodard has publicly accused County Commission member Bruce Thompson of neglecting to reveal his relationship with Nathan Green, one of several local lobbyists for CCA across the country.

Green was paid $12,000 during Thompsons 2002 campaign, according to financial records obtained by Woodard. Thompson was the driving force behind an invitation to private prison companies to submit proposals to county government.

According to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, Nathan Green is also registered as a lobbyist for Flinn Broadcasting Corporation, the media company owned by County Commission member George Flinn Jr.

Decision soon? In the meantime, Bouldin said hes spoken with commission members who expect the process to be discussed over the next couple of weeks. Though it would be about two years before CCAs proposed jail would be completed, Bouldin said CCAs offer of $30 million up front would provide immediate savings.

And CCA, which already manages four facilities in West Tennessee alone, estimates that construction work for the new correctional center would provide 400 to 500 jobs over a 22-month period.

What we said is that we would need the land to put this facility on, and since were going to own the bricks and mortar, we need a long-term, 50-year land lease, Bouldin said. So we offered to pay the county $30 million up front in exchange for the lease, and that would give them an immediate revenue source.

Then, through attrition and retirements, we think we can get to the staff level we need to maintain the savings were going to guarantee to the county. So weve thrown an olive branch out there that says, Why would you want to fight us? We are rolling over, and were going to give you everything you can get.

Check out details on The GEO Groups privatization offer next week in part two of The Daily News series Private Prisons.


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