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Boards learn about proposed 1,500- to 2,200-bed private prison

May 09, 2012
LANCASTER — Two senior employees of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) — Senior Director of Site Acquisitions Brad Wiggins and Senior Director of Partnership Relations Ben Shuster — presented the basic information that was filed with the state under its Request for Proposal process set up last fall when state officials started to give serious thought to privatizing its corrections system.

Select board chairman Leon Rideout deftly ran Monday night's joint Select and Planning Board meeting that drew more than 30 people.

The two spokesmen made it clear that CCA is considering other Granite State sites, and that other private prison developers also submitted their own proposals to the state in what is a state-driven process.

CCA submitted extensive paperwork proposing that it finance, build, operate, and manage either a men's prison or a "hybrid" men's and women's prison.

The company is not interested in building a women's prison, since it would be too small to fit its business model.

CCA has signed a purchase and sale agreement, with a number of contingencies, on a 197-acre site off Route 3 North not far from the Northumberland town line, up the hill from the Lancaster Industrial Park.

"We're looking at a 1,500 to 2,200-bed secure correctional facility that would meet the full spectrum of security levels: minimum, low, medium and high," Wiggins said. It would replace the state's Concord men's facility and house the inmates who are now there. The long-term master plan would include provisions for future growth to top out at 3,000 inmates. By comparison the state prison in Berlin is designed to accommodate 500, with possible expansion to 1,000, and the federal prison is designed to accommodate 1,280. Both those facilities are medium security facilities.

The CCA spokesmen did not know how many Concord inmates are classified as a danger to themselves or others.

The private prison could house inmates from Vermont, some now housed in a CCA facility in Kentucky, or from other New England states.

The compound would take up 40 to 50 acres, and the single-story building, plus mezzanine, would have a total 400,000 to 500,000 square feet. Its overall height would be 38 to 39 feet tall with double fencing, surrounded by a perimeter road that would be constantly patrolled.

CCA is committed to providing safety for inmates, staff, and the general public, its spokesmen said.

The facility's construction cost would be between $100 and $120 million and employ some 300 to 400 workers for 24 months. If the state gave CCA "notice to proceed," it would contract with a construction company that would be required to recruit as many subcontractors as possible from the local and regional communities. Upgrades would have to be made to the local sewer and water infrastructure, mostly at CCA's expense with a possibly that federal or state grants could be sought.

Some 300 full-time equivalent positions would be filled, with likely 70 percent coming from the local and regional communities. Starting pay for a corrections officer is now $15.60 an hour with full benefits, including medical, dental, vision, and a 401(k) plan, plus training and mentoring.

Local property taxes have not been determined. Unlike the federal Bureau of Prisons, corrections officers do not have to be 37 years old or less.

"Local" means within a 15-minute drive, and "regional", a 30- to 45-plus-minute drive.

CCA is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

If the project goes forward, a warden would be hired a year before the facility is ready to open. He or she would secure as many goods and services as possible from local vendors and sign Memorandum of Understanding with local fire, police, hospital and other local emergency services.

The prison would have to be accredited within 18 to 24 months of opening and then every three years thereafter. CCA's mission is to provide safe, secure and humane incarceration. Its escape ratio is 1 per 10,000 inmates — less than one-third the national average. Public facilities average a little over 4 per 10,000 inmates, Wiggins said.

"CCA operates in 66 communities; we must be doing something right!" he said.

Rep. Herb Richardson of Lancaster asked whether CCA would consider operating a county corrections facility on site. Wiggins said that the onus to pursue that option would be on Coös County and that any such facility would have to be "sight-and-sound separate."

New Planning Board alternate member Ben Southworth said that a prison would not meet the town's core values. "We're a small humble town; we're not looking for a large facility that would double the population of our town."

Wiggins and Shuster said that a property-tax-paying prison would not lower property values or discourage private enterprises with high-quality jobs from locating in the town.

Henrietta Moineau of Lancaster said that the sight of the prison might discourage tourism, which she described "as the only industry left in Coös. Others focused on infrastructure issues and on what, if any, role town boards and townspeople would have in deciding whether or not a private prison would be a desirable addition to the town's economic base.

Rideout promised that public hearings would be held.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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