Morain: Is crime now good for business in California?

After spending his first 2? years in office reducing prison spending, Gov. Jerry Brown announced his plan last week to comply with a federal court order that he limit prison crowding by increasing prison capacity by 8,000 inmates, at a cost of $315 million this year, $400 million next year, and more in years to come.

Rather than house the inmates in state-owned prisons, Brown intends to place 2,300 of them in a private prison outside California City, a threadbare Mojave Desert town 66 miles southeast of Bakersfield.

The prison's owner is Corrections Corp. of America, a publicly traded company based in Nashville. The nation's largest prison company, Corrections Corp. already houses 8,900 California prisoners in out-of-state prisons. California accounted for 12 percent of the company's revenue last year, or $214.8 million, an amount that will increase if the California City deal wins final approval.

Brown hopes to lease the lockup facility and staff it with state workers, including about 2,000 California Correctional Peace Officers Association members. That explains why CCPOA president Mike Jimenez stood with other law enforcement representatives at the Capitol press conference as Brown announced the plan.

From where Corrections Corp. sits, the deal has been a long time coming. The company built the joint near California City for $100 million on spec. I visited the concrete and steel field of dreams in 1999 and found that the prison had almost all the amenities one would expect: impenetrable walls, unbreakable glass, unbendable bars and high-tech sensors embedded in the ground to guard against escape. The only thing missing was prisoners.

David Myers, a former warden from Texas, was the Corrections Corp. executive responsible for selling the prison's virtues back then. He pointed to California's ever-increasing prison crowding and the lawsuits over worsening prison conditions.

"It is spiraling down. Am I the only one who can see it?" he asked at the time.

State politicians did not come knocking and Corrections Corp. had to settle for federal prisoners. Even now, the facility is less than half-full.

The reason for politicians' reticence was understandable, if not wholly noble. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has made politicians' stand on private prisons a litmus test, helping candidates who oppose for-profit prisons and whacking any who supported their use.

The union's stated reason was that law enforcement should be a government function. I agree. But CCPOA also had an interest in making the fight a priority. Private prison operators don't have contracts with the union that represents state prison officers.

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