Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mother's Day Lament

If Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel has his way, 239 more New Mexican women will be sucked into the for-profit prison industrial complex vortex. Who profits?

The record will show that during public comments at the April 23rd meeting of the legislature's Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee (CJR), I asked New Mexico Corrections Department Secretary Gregg Marcantel to voluntarily withdraw RFP No. 40-770-13-04551. This Request for Proposal would increase the beds in the women's prison by 39%, and lock the State into partnership for another 8 years with a for-profit prison operator. 

When questioned by the media, the Secretary said that it was not his aim to expand the prison, that he just wanted “to be prepared.” A KOAT TV story has him famously saying into the camera, “I don't think that we wait for the fire to buy a firetruck.” One has to wonder what the firetruck's he talking about? Where is this fire other than in his own imagination?

The RFP, which closed on April 30th, calls for a new contract for 850 beds to be in place by June 30, 2014—the current contract with Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) expires June 2015. What possible justification is there for this excessive number? Marcantel has testified repeatedly that he's relying on the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, whose accuracy he praises. But its most recent study predicts a need for only 807 beds, and that's not until 2023. Plus it contains this hugely relevant caveat on page 4:
...long-term forecasts are based upon current sentencing statutes and current Corrections Department policies and practices. It is not difficult to imagine that statutes, policies and practices may be different in FY 2023. Even if our level of confidence diminishes as we move further into the future, the long-term forecasts may spur useful discussions among policy makers and criminal justice professionals.”

Exactly, and it's those very discussions that the bi-partisan CJR Subcommittee is engaged in having for the public good. It's not only “not difficult to imagine,” there's every reason to expect that CJR's work will lead to the creation of “statutes, policies and practices” that will impact the prison apparatus. Reforms that one hopes may entirely preclude the necessity for locking up more New Mexicans—men and women alike. Reforms that may serve to wholly extinguish Marcantel's chimerical fire.

CJR's very charge is to rewrite the criminal code and make informed, rational, cost-effective, humane and forward-thinking public policy recommendations. At its first meeting in October 2013, a scandalous report was presented by ACLU-NM and New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty—“Inside the Box.” It contains 18 of the saddest pages that any New Mexican with a conscience will likely read. Mentally impaired women who do not comprehend the rules thrown in 23-hour lockdown for weeks and months at a time, at a premium bed rate for the prison's operator. Who gains by such financially-incentivized cruelty? Who, other than CCA shareholders?

Marcantel has also failed to correct one of the more bizarre quirks of the Corrections system under his fiscal stewardship— “in-house parole”—wherein taxpayers pay for the continued incarceration of inmates even though they're eligible for release; there are dozens of such women at present. Combined with the hundreds of male prisoners in similar straits, “in-house parole” costs in excess of $10 million per year, and has every year of Marcantel's tenure. Halfway houses are two-thirds less costly, but how many has he established? Any?

38 New Mexican women (the majority of them are mothers) are eligible for parole but are still incarcerated due to bureaucratic indifference.
 And who will fill these new cells if we are so lax as to allow them to be built? Mothers, mostly. In 2009, 87% of the prisoners were moms, now I understand it's 89%. This is very bad public policy news considering that one of the risk factors for incarceration is having an incarcerated parent. At present, only a quarter of the offenses committed by women are categorized as “violent.” Mostly, they got caught with some quantity of drugs, or they peddled drugs, or drove drunk, or stole some property to feed their habit. Addiction and mental illness are proven not to be aided by incarceration. CJR is exploring less costly and more effective alternatives. Fire prevention, to use Marcantel's inflammatory metaphor.

After the April CJR meeting, Marcantel told me that he is not wedded to “for-profit” prisons; he inherited them, and would happily get rid of them if so directed by his governor and the legislature. From his own lips issued yet another important reason not to saddle New Mexico with a contractual boondoggle that would span the next two governorships, no matter who is in office, no matter who is Secretary.

Lastly, what if CJR concludes that we'd be better off with several smaller regional prisons rather than a single facility remote from families, inaccessible by any form of public transportation? How do we get out of his contract then?

We'd have to pay our way out.

And all for a firetruck we never needed in the first place.