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Ochenski: Chill in the air

The escaping fruits of privatization

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Deep vibrations in the night awakened me. For a moment, looking out the window was like watching some cop show on TV, where the choppers pin the inner-city bad guys in blinding pillars of light as loudspeakers tell them to “throw down your weapons.” The massive helicopter and the searchlight sweeping the homes of sleeping residents fit the script exactly except for one thing—this was Helena, not L.A.

As it turned out, a lot more than the choppers and searchlights fit the script for a Hollywood cop show. Four convicts, who were being transported between Montana prisons, had just broken out of a van while its driver ducked into Burger King for some fast food. One, a convicted killer, was now loose within blocks of the home of his former victim’s family—hence the choppers and searchlights in a city where sleep is rarely disturbed by such events.

To make a long story short, the convicts were recaptured and no grim scenes ensued. But to make a short story long, the questions are now pouring forth about how it was possible for four men, supposedly all chained at ankle, wrist and waist, to break out of an armored prison van and flee into the night.

The answers to those questions may be some time in coming. But at least part of the answer started a decade ago, when then-Gov. Marc Racicot tossed hundreds of millions of tax dollars into an ambitious spending plan that included, for the first time in Montana’s history, private prisons.

It would be one thing to say that Racicot himself had thought up this great idea in his massive, disruptive and expensive reorganization of the entire executive branch of state government. It would also be great if such a move had actually made Montana’s state government “more efficient and more effective,” as Racicot promised.

Neither thing happened, however, as last weekend’s episode illustrates. The privatization was just the latest domino to tumble in the national Republican plan to turn the lucrative business of government over to the private sector. Prisons—yeah, give ’em to contractors.

And so, thanks to Marc Racicot doing his part in privatizing America, Montana has a private prison run by a Tennessee firm, Corrections Corporation of America. Last weekend’s incident in Helena, without question, is a direct outgrowth, since, as it turns out, TransCor America, a division of Corrections Corporation of America, was recently contracted by the state to transport prisoners.

As it turns out, some of the people who were around the Capitol when Racicot rammed through privatization are still around. Jim Smith, for one, was and is the lobbyist for the Montana Sheriffs’ and Peace Officers’ Association. He is also the current mayor of Helena.

According to Smith, prisoner transportation duties had been previously undertaken by the counties. Smith says: “We felt like we were performing a good service” and “saving the state money.” Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Sheryl Leidle, whose department had to go looking for the escapees, backs up Smith and says that the old system was a “very good, successful system.”

The problem, it seems, was with legislative approval for the funds to reimburse counties for their expenses. After successive legislatures refused to make the appropriation, Smith says the counties “gave notice in February that we were going to have to discontinue” prisoner transportation.

Then came a miracle of modern politics. Although no money existed to reimburse county governments for their expenditures, suddenly money was found to contract with a private company.

In April of this year, TransCor, the private prison subsidiary, perhaps not unexpectedly wound up with that contract. A few months later, four prisoners, three of whom are convicted murders and all of whom were headed for maximum security, mysteriously got out of their shackles, tore off a metal window screen with their bare hands, kicked out the back window of the van and escaped into Helena’s quiet neighborhoods. All the while the main guard was off getting a gut bomb while an intern guard with minimal training remained in the van.

The questions far outweigh the answers. From training to coordination to backup procedures, the operations followed by the private prison contractor were substandard to those followed by public law enforcement officials. Bill Slaughter, director of Montana’s Department of Corrections, is quick to admit that there were serious deficiencies leading to the incident.

But the larger issue of the “efficiency and effectiveness” that may or may not be achieved through the privatization of government duties is something that needs to be addressed. Instead, Slaughter says the state is unlikely to cancel the contract and will simply ask the company to make some changes.

The Sheriffs’ and Peace Officers Association is working on its own idea to take to the next Legislature. Somehow, I’m just betting it won’t entail pleading with private prison contractors for more training and competence.

The privatization of prisons and prison services in Montana deserves a second hard look. One early promise, that Montana would not serve as a dumping ground for out-of-state prisoners, has already gone by the wayside. Now, dangerous prisoners roam residential neighborhoods at night, having walked away from a supposedly “armored” prison transport van.

The ongoing privatization of virtually every facet of the public domain—from government services, to national security, to who owns and “operates” our forests, lakes and rivers—is still awaiting proof that it has produced a single benefit to the public. But make no mistake, it is a foundational belief of top Republicans like Montana’s own Marc Racicot, and his good friend President George W. Bush.

Helena’s incident was chilling, and provides plenty of reasons to seriously reconsider across-the-board privatization. Otherwise, we just might be facing a future in which we regularly wake to deep vibrations in the night.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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