Temporary budget director doesn't have the answers for Alaska prisons or API

A new report on the costs of private prisons shows that they are not necessarily a way to save the state money and they may even cost more.

But a drive to privatize prisons and other institutions is coming from the Dunleavy administration. The failure to inform Alaskans is a sign of trouble ahead for this element of the Dunleavy plan to have the state “do less with less.”

In what could be the first step of many, the state announced plans Friday to hire a private contractor on a no-bid $1-million-a-month contract to mange the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Employees would remain state workers for now, but after July the institution would be entirely operated by the contractor if the state likes what happens between now and then.

One sticking point is that a 2017 study concluded that turning API over to private enterprise would not save money. The state could save some money by privatizing some “non core services,” the Public Consulting Group concluded, such as the front desk, security, and facility management.

A consultant who works for Wellpath, the private management company, was at API this week to check things out, but in an email to API employees the interim CEO did not identify Kevin Ann Huckshorn’s employer.

The email included a biography of Huckshorn that said she is mental health director for the state of Delaware. Huckshorn quit that job in 2014. In this video from last June, she talked about working for Correct Care Recovery Solutions in Massachusetts. The company was bought by H.I.G. in November and became part of Wellpath.

Much of this privatization fever stems from ideology, not economics, though there are real problems at API that need to be addressed. Multiple management positions at API are vacant. It has an acting CEO, an acting nursing manager and an acting director of psychiatry,

The Legislature and the public ought to be more involved in all of this before the state pulls the trigger on privatizing API, prisons, the Pioneer Homes, the Alaska Railroad, the ferry system and other holdings that the imported budget director may see as ripe for divestiture.

Donna Arduin, the Alaska budget director from Michigan, has pushed privatization in other states, which explains why this idea has popped up during the two months she has been in Alaska. Arduin is making $196,000 a year, the most of anyone in the governor’s office.

She has long promoted the private prison business elsewhere. One of the first questions for Alaskans is whether Arduin has any connections past or present with the contractors looking to take over vital state facilities, such as API.

For the state’s jails, which will have hundreds of more prisoners if the Dunleavy “war on criminals” proceeds, I have no doubt that Alaska could temporarily save some money by finding the cheapest jailers in the Lower 48 or building cheap jails in Alaska and cutting payroll costs.

But the long-term costs to Alaska and society? Don’t expect those to be analyzed by the temporary budget director.

Putting prisoners in the cheapest jails might increase the chances that they will break the law once they get out of jail. Almost every Alaska prisoner will get out of jail sooner or later, so the governor and the Legislature better have a real understanding of this first.

A recent audit in Georgia found that private prisons cost more per day, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported, paying two private companies $140 million a year to handle 15 percent of prisoners.

“The audit says it costs the state more to house comparable inmates in private prisons than state facilities, which is contrary to long-held beliefs of lawmakers supportive of increased privatization of government,” the newspaper said.

The companies there are GEO Group of Florida and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. Of course, they dispute the numbers in the Georgia account. Arduin was once on the board of a GEO spinoff.

There has been no public discussion about making API and prisons profitable and Dunleavy didn’t campaign on this. The tough talk about the coming war on criminals needs to be accompanied by a long-term plan.

As a former corrections leader in Alaska puts it, “The first priority for any for-profit prisons is to make money. The more people incarcerated, the larger the profits. This eliminates any incentive to implement rehabilitative programs to reduce crime and improve public safety.”

Dermot Cole9 Comments