Monday, May 4, 2009

Looking for the Next Mr. Goodweimer

Privatized corrections is a racket. It always was, and it always will be. There's no way around it. There are, from time to time, little islands of well-run halfway houses and prisons in the shark-infested seas of privately run correctional institutions, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Since the mid-1980s, Alaska has been unable to run a fully state-owned, union-operated set of jails, prisons and halfway houses. The new paradigm, set up by former Governor, Bill Sheffield, has enriched a few, provided very low-wage, low-benefit employment for thousands of Alaskans, housed thousands of inmates and "residents" in-state, and shipped hundreds of millions of Alaskans' dollars out of state.

Before the privatized correctional paradigm existed here, Alaska's prisons cost more to operate than most other systems in the country. That was one of the initial reasons given for creating the privatized halfway house system, Allvest. The person who ended up being the main owner of Allvest, Bill Weimer, is now in prison.

Between about 1990 and 2006, Weimer donated a lot of money to many Alaska politicians, Republicans and Democrats, as he sought to expand his system, or create a more profitable relationship for his enterprises and the state. Cornell Corrections, which bought out Weimer's Alaska interests, now donates heftily, usually to Republicans.

The state has a contract with Correctional Corporation of America to house hundreds of prison inmates outside of Alaska. That company donates very heftily to Republican politicians, nationwide, and in Alaska.

Sending Alaska inmates Outside for their terms of incarceration was always a bad idea. Especially the idea of sending them to the cheapest possible facility. Every single dollar spent on housing an inmate in Arizona is one less dollar spent in Alaska.

These hundreds of millions of dollars that have been paid to private contractors in Arizona, had they been spent in the Mat-Su Borough, or in Whittier (the Buckner Building) or in Delta, would have been then re-spent several times in the communities that provided the services and the workforces to guard the inmates.

As I watched the push for sending inmates outside happen, alongside the push by the likes of Weimer to have privatized prisons in Alaska to complement his halfway house empire, I realized that between Weimer's anti-union stance and the push to get inmates in privatized systems, either here or Outside, the Republican-dominated subtext was largely anti-union. Alaska's GOP would rather enrich the stockholders at CCA and Cornell than do anything that might create more union jobs in Alaska for highly trained career employees.

Just think of how many hundreds of families could have gotten good union jobs in Alaska, had we expanded the existing state-run system, rather than send all those hundreds of millions to the lower 48. Those union workers would have had kids, taken their kids to locally employed orthodontists, ballet teachers, gun stores, barbers and restaurants.

As the ground gets broken for the new Goose Creek Correctional Facility, and the existing contract for out-of-state services to CCA expires, it may be time to ponder why the state is looking for the next Mr. Goodweimer.

note - the author worked for Bill Weimer for almost seven years, and held stock in Correctional Corporation of America for several years.

image - Bill Weimer


Aspiecelia said...

I agree with most of what you have said. But, the reasons why we have so many inmates are because these prison corps. and unions for corrections officers have lobbied for harsher sentences. I also would not call corrections officers highly trained career employees. They get six weeks of training. Amung them are very abusive individuals who are barely literate. I would also not call the people managing the prison system professionals, unless you believe withholding health care, keeping people in inhuman conditions and allowing corrections officers to basicly torture some individuals is professional. It is also true that a huge number of inmates are native and 1 in 7 inmates is innocent.

Philip Munger said...


I agree that too many are imprisoned. I agree that many drawn to work in corrections aren't motivated by idealism and duty. They certainly could be better trained, but compared to the people in the privatized system, they ARE better trained.

In Alaska, the lobbying by unions for harsher sentencing doesn't exist on the same level as California, for instance. It is far overshadowed, though, by the lobbying for harsher laws and for privatized prisons or privatized correctional housing contracts from the private side of the industry.

HarpboyAK said...

While I agree that we shouldn't be outsourcing our correction system (although Juneau's non-profit Gastineau Human Services apparently does a good job running their halfway house), we certainly don't want to end up like California, where any effort to reduce penalties for non-violent offenses like simple drug possession are vigorously opposed by the correctional officers' union, the largest union in the state. We don't want politicians in thrall to the jailers, as they are in California, where the union will finance opposition and smear campaigns against anyone who tries to reduce the prison population.

Frank said...

Correctional officers in public prisons turn over at 15% yearly. Most of that is due to retirement. Private corrections guards turn over at over 50% a year. They retire at 0.6% a year. There is no mentoring process in for-profit pens.

Weimar, quite simply, is a crook. He didn't get busted for 1% of the crooked things he did. But he is hardly an oddity in a thoroughly corrupt industry.

Alaska legislators belong to the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. They are wined and dined, pampered and flattered at annual get togethers. CCA and ex-CCA officials chair ALEC's criminal justice committee, crafting ever more draconian legislation that is guaranteed to increase their market and market share. The legislators bring them home and put their names on the industry bills as sponsors.

Philip Munger said...

Frank paraphrased what I said or wanted to say fairly concisely.