Velázquez Opposes Privatization of Puerto Rican Prisons
Velázquez Opposes Privatization of Puerto Rican Prisons
March 23, 2018
With Vote Next Week, Leads 34 Members of Congress in Condemning Privatization Proposal
Washington, DC –Next week, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico faces a deadline to vote on Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s fiscal plan for the Commonwealth—including efforts to privatize Puerto Rico’s prisons. With just days until the vote, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) today led 34 Members of Congress in urging Puerto Rican authorities to abandon their proposal to privatize the Island’s prison system. In a letter to the Governor and the Chairman of the Oversight Board, Velázquez warned that privatization would engender dangerous consequences for the Island, such as separating families, perpetuating unethical prison conditions and draining local revenue.
“Not only are privatized prisons known for employing inhumane conditions to save money, they tear families apart and hinder meaningful rehabilitation,” said Velázquez. “This shameful effort puts profit before the wellbeing of inmates, and must be rejected by the Board.”
In Governor Rosselló’s New Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico, the Governor includes a provision, the “Out-of-State Program,” to externalize imprisonment services for 3,200 inmates in Puerto Rico, a total of 30 percent of the imprisoned population. In the letter, Velázquez and lawmakers repudiate the Governor’s claim that the Out-of-State Program will save money; instead the letter cites analysis showing that the proposed program will increase the Island’s deficit by $46.6 million.
“There are simply no cost savings to justify this plan,” said Velázquez. “To the contrary, not only will this proposal burden Puerto Rico’s already strained economy, it could breach human rights and raises constitutional issues.”
Studies have consistently demonstrated that for-profit prison companies can promote a violent and counterproductive environment, and they have proven that family visitation reduces rates of recidivism. The Out-of-State program would therefore impair the successful rehabilitation of inmates.
“It is my strong conviction that criminal justice reform must make the rehabilitation of inmates a top priority,” said Velázquez. “Time and again, we have seen that private prisons lack incentives to consider the needs of inmates, instead focusing on their bottom line—profit.”
The letter additionally cites constitutional issues as reason for the Governor and Oversight Board to abandon privatization efforts. Specifically, by preventing inmates from visiting their families, Velázquez raises a potential violation of Article VI, Section 19 of Puerto Rico’s Constitution.
“Not only does transferring prisoners thousands of miles away from their families raise ethical issues, but it also raises serious legal concerns,” said Velázquez. “If this proposal is passed, it will likely be challenged in court.”
In 2012, Puerto Rico entered into a two-year contract with a private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America to transfer up to 480 inmates to a correctional facility in Oklahoma. Following a unit-wide altercation in the Oklahoma facility, Puerto Rico’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation terminated the contract, ultimately citing budgetary concerns.
“As prior failed attempts have shown, private prisons are out to maximize profit, not provide safe conditions or meaningful rehabilitation,” Velázquez concluded. “The government of Puerto Rico should reject this proposal outright.”
In addition to Velázquez, the letter was signed by House Reps. Serrano, Cárdenas, Cohen, Correa, Crowley, Cummings, Doggett, Ellison, Espaillat, Grijalva, Gutiérrez, H. Johnson, Khanna, Lee, Lewis, Meeks, Moore, Nadler, Napolitano, Pallone, Payne, Pocan, Richmond, Schakowsky, R. Scott, Sires, Soto, B. Thompson, Titus, Torres, Vargas, Watson Coleman.
Senators Sanders and Warren also signed the letter.
The full text of the letter is below. For a PDF, click here.
March 23, 2018
The Honorable Ricardo A. Rosselló Nevares
Governor of Puerto Rico
P.O Box 9020082
San Juan, PR 00902-0082
Mr. José B. Carrión III
Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico
P.O. Box 192018
San Juan, PR 00919-2018
Dear Governor Rosselló and Chairman Carrión:
We write to express our opposition to the recent proposal to privatize much of Puerto Rico’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (“DCR”). Such a change could lead to undesirable outcomes, such as increasing the Island’s deficit and leading to higher rates of recidivism. As a result, we believe that this proposal should be rejected and that on-Island alternatives should be pursued.
I. The Proposal Will Increase the Deficit
In our analysis, the proposal will not generate any new savings, but rather increase the government of Puerto Rico’s deficit. While the proposal assumes a $46.9 million cost reduction from implementing the “Out-of-State Program,” such a plan will require spending at least $70 million on correctional costs off-Island. As a result, the structural deficit will actually increase, because every dollar of government spending moved off-Island results in a loss of 80 cents in tax revenue. As a result, the total increase to the Island’s deficit attributable to the Out of State Program would be $46.6 million. Furthermore, many reputable studies have concluded that there are no cost savings from the privatization of prisoner custody in the first place—regardless of any multiplier effect—including the United States General Accounting Office.
II. General Concerns Over Prison Privatizations
Significant concerns have been raised about the operations of for-profit corrections companies. As a result, the practices of private prison companies can promote an environment that is more violent and counterproductive to rehabilitation. In this regard, we are concerned that privatizing Puerto Rico’s prison system could generate these problems, where they did not exist before, and that transferring Puerto Rican inmates to private prisons outside of Puerto Rico would subject them to similar treatment. Either of these outcomes would be unacceptable.
III. Successful Rehabilitation Incorporates Family Visitation
We are also concerned that if implemented, this proposal would be devastating for families on the Island, and would undermine rehabilitation efforts. Numerous studies show the positive effects that family visitation and contact have in reducing recidivism among prisoners when released. Given the distance and cost involved in a privatized prison system for the island, it is likely that fewer inmates would receive family visits, and that this would impact their eventual release and reintegration into Puerto Rican society. A criminal defense lawyer in San Juan commented that this proposal would be a “terrible hardship,” and that family members would have to bear an expensive and time-consuming flight to the mainland. One criminology expert stated that the distance from family members brought about by this proposal would delay progress in the rehabilitation of inmates. Instead, the government should be working to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism, thereby helping former prisoners become productive members of society, and at the same time lowering prison costs over the long term.
IV. Constitutional Issues
We are also concerned that the externalization of imprisonment services proposal may violate Puerto Rican constitutional law. Article VI, Section 19 of the Constitution of Puerto Rico states:
It shall be the public policy of the Commonwealth… to regulate its penal institutions in a manner that effectively achieves their purposes and to provide, within the limits of available resources, for adequate treatment of delinquents in order to make possible their moral and social rehabilitation.
The Puerto Rico courts have held that Article VI, Section 19 may be violated when prisoners are prevented from visiting with their families, reasoning that visitation is necessary for rehabilitation. It appears that this proposal, to the extent it prevents inmates from visiting with their families, may violate Puerto Rico’s Constitution.
V. Previous privatization attempts have failed
Finally, we are concerned that this proposal attempts to reestablish policies that have failed previously. For example, in 2012, Puerto Rico entered into a two-year contract with Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”) to transfer as many as 480 male inmates to Cimarron Correctional Facility (“CCF”) in Cushing, Oklahoma. In 2013, there was a unit-wide altercation at CCF involving those same inmates. Approximately three months after the altercation, CCA officials announced that the Puerto Rico DCR decided to terminate its contract with CCA and return its inmates to Puerto Rico, ultimately citing budgetary concerns. This failed experiment demonstrated both that privatization of Puerto Rican inmates to the mainland is unsafe and not cost-effective. This is not the time to propose privatization of prison services, particularly when numerous contracts awarded by the government of Puerto Rico have been prematurely terminated or have ended up in controversy. It is vital that the island focus on post-Maria recovery efforts and attracting investment to the Island, not outsourcing inherently governmental functions.
For the reasons indicated above, we encourage you to rescind this proposal. It would tear families apart, hinder inmates’ rehabilitation, repeat the mistakes of prior governments, and subject the government of Puerto Rico to legal challenges. We appreciate your sense of urgency in trying to remedy the Island’s fiscal crisis. However, we are seriously concerned that if implemented, this proposal would cause more harm to Puerto Rico without any cost savings to justify it.