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Rialto shows private prison documentary


December 05, 2012
LANCASTER — About 25 people, including Executive Councilor Ray Burton, watched a documentary on private prisons at the Rialto last Wednesday evening. The State Employees Association sponsored the event, which included some discussion about the documentary.

Diana Lacey, President of the Association, said that her organization is a member of New Hampshire Prison Watch. This entity, Lacey said, is "actively involved in educating the public about the for-profit prison industry."

Concern has been raised in the state about the possibility of a private prison. Lancaster is one of the potential locations for a large facility that would be run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country.

Studies are mixed on the ability of private prisons to help communities. The industry suggests that it can provide corrections services more efficiently and for less cost than government facilities.

A feasibility study on private prisons in New Hampshire has been in the works for several months. Originally the study was to be completed in October. Burton said that no report has yet been presented to the Executive Council. Although now late, the report is expected later this month.

CCA has worked on a purchase and sales agreement for property near the Lancaster-Northumberland line. The company worked out the agreement with Pine Tree Power. A public meeting earlier this year provided information about the possible Lancaster prison.

Town Planning and Zoning Coordinator Ben Gaetjens-Oleson, who attended the Rialto documentary, believes the agreement is contingent on state action. He is not aware if a time limit would allow Pine Tree Power to back out of the agreement with CCA.

The documentary was entitled "Billions Behind Bars." Near the beginning, the documentary notes, "No nation on the planet holds more of its own people behind bars." Prisoners in the United States outnumber prisoners in China and Russia combined, the film stated.

During periods of discussion with the audience, Lacey made several points. She noted that the Lancaster prison could house as many as 3,000 individuals, nearly equal to the town's population. She suggested that CCA looks at expansion in a "predatory way," trying to find communities that might be amenable to the company's promise to bring jobs and greater economic opportunity.

One part of the documentary offers a cautionary tale on seeing private prisons as an economic engine. The town of Hardin, Mont., authorized a private prison several years ago. Since that time there have been no prisoners and no jobs at the facility. Hardin is now stuck with a $27 million bond for the construction with no revenue to pay it back.

Members of the public who watched the documentary were opposed to the possible prison in Lancaster. They seemed responsive to Lacey's view that low wages and poor work conditions prevail at the facility.

Another concern is the possibility that CCA would use the facility to house prisoners from all over the country. Private companies do that now. As the documentary noted, California ships its prisoners as far away as Mississippi. Lacey suggested that a CCA prison in Lancaster might become "a magnet for prisoners all over the country."

Burton said that the Council will review the pending report. He noted the delays in getting the report so far. "I don't think this is a fast moving train," Burton told the crowd.

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