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Lawmakers try again to ban Nevada's use of private prisons, say companies focused on profit, not rehabilitation

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Criminal JusticeLegislature
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Guards walk inside High Desert State Prison as seen on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

Two years after former Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a bill banning Nevada’s use of private prisons, lawmakers again discussed cutting ties with companies that incarcerate people for profit.

Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, a former corrections officer who sponsored AB183 and a similar bill in 2017, wants Nevada to end its private prison contracts within three years. She argued that private companies are driven by their bottom lines and have a disincentive to rehabilitate prisoners.

“Is our job simply to put people who commit crimes in jail and leave them there, simply to have them off the streets?” she asked members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee during a Thursday hearing. “Or is it our job as elected officials to … address the crime that puts someone there, but also try to make sure that the person that we let back out into society is a better person?”

As a way to address overcrowding and the loss of a prison housing unit during a remodeling project, Nevada contracted with Corecivic in 2017 to house 200 inmates at a private prison in Arizona. The state is planning to bring those inmates back to Nevada this year.

Monroe-Moreno said the contract is not a bargain for the state and actually costs the state $7,752 a year more per inmate per year — money that she said would be better spent improving conditions in state. The bill would also prohibit local governments from leasing their facilities to private prison companies — an idea she said was floated in North Las Vegas, which has a vacant jail.

She said she’d spoken with Nevada Department of Corrections Director James Dzurenda about the bill.

“Of course he would still like to have that tool in his toolbox,” she said about private prisons. “However, according to the NDOCs budget, it costs us $22,171 to house an inmate within our facilities at an annual costs, but it costs us $29,923 to house an inmate in an out a state facility.”

The bill also garnered support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and progressive groups, including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) Mass Liberation Project. Among other things, ACLU representative Nick Shepack said handing correctional services over to private companies makes it hard for lawmakers to exercise oversight over the facilities.

“We also must ask ourselves, what is the true cost of allowing a system to operate within our borders that profits from high recidivism rates and high crime rates? I don't know if that cost can be measured in dollars,” he said.

Republican lawmakers, however, questioned whether the state would be losing needed flexibility in managing its prison population.

“Why do you want to take that option away?” asked Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner.

Monroe-Moreno noted that the state has interstate compacts that allow it to send inmates to public prisons in other states when needed, and suggested that could help the state address any spikes in population.

“In my conversation with [Dzurenda] yesterday, we are utilizing that option and there's one state that actually owes us more beds because we haven't sent inmates there but they've sent a number of their inmates to us,” she said. “So the option is still there for him to send inmates out, just not utilize a profit margin system.”

Republican Assemblyman Tom Roberts asked whether the state would be able to manage in the event of a major emergency, such as an earthquake that debilitated a prison. Monroe-Moreno said she thought the governor could declare an emergency that would allow the state to use outside resources in that case.

And Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles wondered whether a private prison ban fits in with Nevada’s effort to find innovative approaches to reducing recidivism. She asked if it might limit the state’s ability to contract with a provider in the future who could do good things for inmates.

“Are we possibly limiting the ability to engage in that type of partnership with someone?” she asked.

Monroe-Moreno said she believes it’s the state’s responsibility to put innovative approaches to work within its public facilities. But she noted that the bill wouldn’t foreclose the possibility of smaller contracts, such as those with a drug recovery program — just not ones involving core correctional services.

Nobody testified in opposition to banning private prisons, although one commenter said he wanted the bill to take effect sooner.

Proponents acknowledged that there are deficiencies in the prison system, including pay for correctional officers, but argued that a public system is better in the long run on practical and philosophical grounds.

“The Nevada prison system is not perfect,” Shepack said. “I see it in this committee all the time —  working hard to make it a better system. But we firmly believe that state and local governments are the best equipped and should be held solely responsible for holding Nevada's inmates.”

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