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VOL. 120 | NO. 252 | Monday, December 19, 2005

Jail Privatization Issue Draws Continued Debate

By Andy Meek

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"I don't see how you can come to a conclusion about (jail privatization) without the input of the commission. The community deserves a fair look at this, and I'm asking for it."
- Julian Bolton
Shelby County Commission member

He's a corrections officer who has worked at the Shelby County Penal Farm for 16 years, a career that, until recently, has been mostly spent out of the limelight and away from the public eye.

But in the last three years, Jeff Woodard - who has become one of Shelby County government's most outspoken, persistent critics - figures he's missed only five public meetings of the full County Commission.

Protesting privatization. With most appearances, Woodard protests the notion that a private company could ever smoothly manage the county's jail and prison facilities, something county leaders have been studying with particular interest over the past year. He has become such a familiar presence at the meetings that when commissioners took up the issue again recently, they wondered aloud why Woodard hadn't shown up.

In Wednesday's meeting of the commission's law enforcement, fire, corrections and courts committee, commissioners mulled over the latest round of privatization proposals.

"This is the time he should be here, when we're discussing this," one county lawmaker noted.

Private proposals. But Woodard's nonappearance wasn't the most significant absence from the meeting that day. Also missing were the new jail proposals themselves, which are tweaked versions of packages submitted to the county earlier this year by two leading companies in the private prison industry. Only a few people in county government have actually seen the proposals that Corrections Corp. of America and The GEO Group redelivered to county leaders about one month ago.

And midway through last week's session - which was called to debate the two proposals and see how far along the process is - committee chairman Bruce Thompson asked county staffers the obvious question: When might the commission, and the public, be able to see them?

The answer he was given, in effect, was that no one is sure, since negotiations are still under way.

"It seems every time we get a set of offers, there are almost as many questions to be asked as there are that are answered."
- Harvey Kennedy
chief administrative officer,
Shelby County Sheriff's Office

"The reason this process can be so difficult is that, even as we go through the best and final offers trying to meticulously detail what they've offered, even one of the companies that we were most impressed with had completely left off the staffing for a 384-bed dormitory facility," said Harvey Kennedy, chief administrative officer for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, which manages the Downtown jail. "They answered the question and resolved that ... And it seems every time we get a set of offers, there are almost as many questions to be asked as there are that are answered."

Big implications. One thing that's not in question is what's at stake for Memphis and Shelby County. The proposals have attracted nationwide attention because if either is accepted, prison industry officials believe Memphis would be home to the largest private prison system in the country.

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, county Sheriff Mark Luttrell and Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said they won't support privatizing the county's jail or prison facility. A decision by the County Commission on whether to keep the issue moving forward could be made as early as today at the full commission meeting.

Nationwide trend. According to a March 2003 study by the Rio Grande Foundation, three-fifths of U.S. states contract with private companies to house state prisoners.

Before the press conference, county leaders were leaning toward considering only privatization of the Downtown jail. Kennedy said as much on Wednesday, but only went so far as to explain that some potential for savings exists there. And there's one big reason for that.

"From the very beginning of the process, we found out that most of the savings that would accrue to a jail operation in privatization accrue because of the construction of a new jail," Kennedy said.

So a new facility could be in the works, one designed more efficiently so it could be operated by less staff. That's one of the current jail's biggest flaws, county commissioners were told.

"We've had one consultant tell us you probably couldn't design it any worse if you tried," Kennedy said.

Shrouded by questions. Kennedy is part of a small committee that has been studying the two jail proposals, both of which have yet to be made public - to the chagrin of some commissioners and opponents. Not that it's the only point of contention among the 13-member commission.

As the privatization debate continues to move forward, pointed questions are being raised over whether a sense of urgency is needed and what it all means for the county.

"There's no consensus of a sense of urgency from the commission, and I don't want the dramatic voices of some of those who support it to communicate to you that we need to have that sense of urgency," Commissioner Walter Bailey said.

To which Commissioner Bruce Thompson shot back: "The sense of urgency I feel is for several reasons. One is for the employees, and the second is because if there is an opportunity to save millions of dollars a year in taxpayers' money, we need to be about the business of moving forward and saving that money. I've got property tax bills coming in the mail in the next few days, regardless of what we do here."

Requesting answers. And what about the proposals themselves, which commissioners had not seen as of last week?

"I don't see how you can come to a conclusion about this without the input of the commission," Commissioner Julian Bolton said. "The community deserves a fair look at this, and I'm asking for it."

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