Private prisons came under fire at a Tuesday legislative hearing, with several lawmakers arguing the profit motive doesn’t belong in operations to house, punish and rehabilitate inmates.
The state already aims to take over three of New Mexico’s five private prisons, leaving the contractors with a greatly reduced role at these facilities. But some members of the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee want all the state’s prisons to be entirely in public hands as soon as possible.
The call for the state to eliminate privately run facilities became more pointed when discussion turned to contracts that required companies to be paid at a minimum occupancy rate — typically 80 percent — even as decreasing incarcerations in recent years are causing inmate populations to drop below that level.
State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said prisons’ main goals should be to act as a deterrent for crime, protect the public from dangerous offenders and rehabilitate inmates whenever possible — and that private contractors appear to have a different priority.
“I don’t think these goals are consistent with the goal of profit,” Sedillo Lopez said.
Sedillo Lopez said the data presented to the committee focused on how private prisons save dollars, as if that’s the only important policy consideration. But she would like an estimate of intangible costs to a community in having those prisons paying their employees less and providing fewer benefits, as well as skimping on rehabilitation programs.
Charles Sallee, a committee fiscal analyst, said public and private prisons would be found lacking in rehabilitation. But private prisons would inject less money into a community in the form of employee health care and pension dollars, Sallee said.
The state is scheduled to take over at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa and the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center near Grants on Nov. 1. In 2019, it took control of the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton.
The trend is a far different than the path New Mexico followed decades ago, when it began housing inmates at privately operated facilities. At the time, it was hailed by supporters as a way to efficiently house inmates and perhaps limit the problems New Mexico experienced before and after the deadly and horrific riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico south of Santa Fe, where 33 died in February 1980.
When it begins overseeing the Santa Rosa and Northwest prisons, only 24.5 percent of the state’s prison beds will be under the auspices of private operators.
The committee’s fiscal analysts said private prisons are run more efficiently than public facilities, partly because their lower staff-to-inmate ratios enable them to hire fewer people.
The transition of three prisons back to state control alone cost $4.1 million in 2022 and $6.1 million in 2023. After that, they will tack on $10 million in yearly costs.
Margaret Brown Vega of AVID, a volunteer group that visits immigrant detainees at the Otero County Processing Center, wants to push it a step further.
The state should close private prisons and then impose a blanket ban on all such prisons, including those used by federal agencies, Brown Vega said.
Private contractors who can no longer house inmates will instead house immigrant detainees to fill the void, she said.
“The sole concern of these facilities is filling beds,” Brown Vega said.
Sedillo Lopez said she didn’t think the state has the authority to deny federal authorities prison space.
Nathan Craig, another AVID volunteer, said several states, such as Illinois and California, have instituted across-the-board bans on private prisons that include federal ones.
The federal government might challenge such a ban, Craig said, but there are precedents for it.
State Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham aims to reduce the state’s use of private prisons. But eliminating them entirely is not practical and could have a severe effect on communities where people depend on those prison jobs, she said.
“I think the conversation is not as simple as ‘Let’s just close the doors,’ “ Tafoya Lucero said.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, echoed those sentiments.
“Whether we like it or not, people are going to be incarcerated,” Alcon said. “We cannot just shut down facilities because we don’t like who is running the facility.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the committee present for Tuesday's legislative hearing. It was the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, not the Legislative Finance Committee.