A national survey has found that Louisiana guarantees private prisons operating in the state that they will have at least 96 percent occupancy, and if they don’t house that many inmates, the state pays them that much, anyway.
A study by In the Public Interest points out what it calls “the shocking prevalence of contract language between private prison companies and state and local governments that either guarantee prison occupancy rates, (which ItPI calls “lockup quotas”) or force taxpayers to pay for empty beds if the prison population falls due to lower crime rates or other factors.”
The report labels payment for nonexistent prisoners “low-crime taxes.”
Louisiana’s two for-profit prison contracts have what the study calls “a staggering 96 percent occupancy guarantee clause,” but it is not the highest.
Arizona has three contracts that contain 100 percent occupancy guarantee clauses and Oklahoma has three contracts with 98 percent guaranteed occupancy. Following Louisiana’s 96 percent is Virginia, which has one prison with guaranteed 95 percent occupancy.
Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy Le Blanc says the 96 percent occupancy guarantee is not a problem because state facilities cannot hold all the inmates. He said the policy “goes back 20 years. We never pay for an empty bed.
“State correctional facilities, including privately managed Winn and Allen correctional centers, only have the capacity to house about half of the approximately 39,500 DOC offenders in Louisiana,” Le Blanc said. “The department will always prioritize filling these beds first before diverting offenders to the local level, where 20,000 DOC offenders reside, and therefore the 96 percent occupancy requirement is of no consequence to the incarceration rate.
“Louisiana is not comparable to other states listed in the study that have empty beds in state correctional facilities,” he said.
The report says that occupancy requirements serve as an incentive to keep private prisons full, instead of housing inmates in state-run prisons.
“In Louisiana’s case, the occupancy incentives are not tied to prison population as we have a significant overflow already to local-level parish jails,” Le Blanc said. Anytime there’s a reduction in the number of inmates, it’s in local jail populations because inmates there generally do not receive job training, education opportunities or pre-release preparation for returning to society.
ItPI said it found 77 private corrections contracts, local and state, and 62 facilities responded to the survey. Of those, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) include occupancy guarantees that force taxpayers to pay for empty prison beds if the “lockup quota” is not met.
All major prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, Global Expertise in Outsourcing Group and Management and Training Corp., have negotiated inmate quotas into their contracts.
Louisiana’s two state-owned but privately run prisons are Winn Correctional Center near Winnfield, operated by CCA, and Allen Correctional Center near Kinder, operated by GEO.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen says the report leaves out that in many cases, it’s the state government that requests an occupancy guarantee so it can be assured space will be available and not occupied by other agencies’ inmates.
“Less than half of our contracts (nationwide) have minimum capacity agreements,” he said, adding that the contracts are not one-sided because the government partner agrees to them. Also, “all of our contracts include ‘subject to appropriation’ clauses, which give our government partners termination rights.”
He said the agreements don’t interfere with the operation of prisons and “at any time, they can remove inmates… One of the biggest benefits we provide government is the flexibility to change as populations go down.”
Some of the occupancy requirements are necessary for a feasible business model, Owen said. If a state asks a private corrections company to build a facility and “spend tens of millions of dollars, we have to have some assurance it’s going to be used.”