Bill would prohibit Nevada from contracting with private, for-profit prisons

by Brian Bahouth

Three Lakes Valley Conservation Camp near Indian Springs, Nevada - image - Nevada Department of Corrections

Carson City – In 2017, Assembly Bill 303 made it to the desk of Governor Brian Sandoval, a measure that would have prohibited the state from using private, for-profit companies to house Nevada prisoners, in or out of state, but Governor Sandoval vetoed the bill saying AB303, “improperly encroaches on the authority and discretion of the executive branch of state government including the State Board of Prison Commissioners.”

Sandoval went on the write that AB303 “goes too far” in limiting the discretion of the Director of the Department of Corrections by prohibiting the use of private prisons.  The veto message offers an example of an overcrowded Nevada state prison system and the immediate need to outsource prisoner detention.

“Short of spending tens of millions of dollars building new prisons, which would do nothing to fix the immediate problem, the best solution to mitigate overcrowding was to contract with out-of-state private prisons to take some Nevada inmates.  It would be ill-advised to foreclose all available options now, should there be similar, or other unexpected, problems in the future,” Sandoval wrote.

Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, a retired corrections officer who represents Assembly District 1 in North Las Vegas, was the primary sponsor of AB303 in 2017 and is the lead sponsor of Assembly Bill 183, a 2019 measure identical in intent to AB303.  Monroe-Moreno presented AB183 to the Assembly Committee on the Judiciary on Thursday March 7, 2019.

Hear Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno’s presentation of AB183.

Assemblywoman Monroe-Moreno told her colleagues and those attending the hearing on March 7 that private prisons are more expensive than state operated detention centers.

“According to the NDOC’s budget, it costs us $22,171 to house an inmate within our facilities on an annual cost, but it costs us $29,923 to house an inmate in an out of state facility.  That’s a difference of $7,752 per inmate, per year,” Monroe-Moreno said.

There are two primary private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) recently rebranded as CoreCivic and the GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.

CoreCivic operates a federally contracted facility in Nevada, the Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump where immigration detainees are housed.

The State of Nevada has contracted CoreCivic to house some 200 of the state’s most dangerous prisoners in a facility in Eloy, Arizona until 2024.

In 2004 Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn terminated a contract with the CCA for the operation of two facilities in Nevada.  Assemblywoman Monroe-Moreno mentioned the contract gone bad in her opening remarks.

“We had two facilities in our state that were manned by a private industry, one was a juvenile facility.  One was a women’s facility that we are currently operating ourselves,” Monroe-Moreno said.  “In the women’s facility we had a woman that was impregnated by one of the private industry guards.  There were other horror stories at the juvenile facility that a private industry was managing.

“I am not asking to we close down a business.  We do not have it here. What I’m asking is, as a state and as elected officials, and as responsible citizens, is our job simply to put people who  commit crimes in jail and leave them there, simply to have them off the streets? Or is it our job as elected officials to make sure that the people who come into our jail facilities, that work in our prison facilities work in safe, humane facilities.

“That we do what a jail is supposed to do, and that is address the crime that puts them in there, but also try to make sure that the person we let back out into society is a better person than the one who went into the jail.”

“What AB183 does is, it says that we’ve learned from our mistakes and for once and for all, the State of Nevada is saying, we do not want private jail facilities in the State of Nevada.”

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nick Shepack offered remarks about AB183.  Hear Mr. Shepack’s remarks.

“This body, this legislative body and this committee in particular has the great responsibility of creating many of the laws that govern who enters our prison system and how long they’ll be there, and a major part of the that responsibility is oversight, and what we have seen in states that allow private prisons to operate within their borders, is a major lack of oversight,” Shepack told the committee.  “It becomes extremely difficult for legislative bodies to have oversight.  It becomes difficult for government entities, and it becomes difficult for third party entities such as ourselves to find out what is actually going on in these facilities. For that reason, we believe private prisons should not be used in the State of Nevada.”

Mr. Shepack referred to the per prisoner cost Assemblywoman Monroe-Moreno cited in her presentation as evidence of the poor cost-effectiveness of for-profit prisons and added that there are costs to society beyond dollars and cents for contracting with private prison companies.

“What is the true cost of allowing a system to operate within our borders that profits from high recidivism rates and high crime rates.  I don’t know if that cost can be measured in dollars,” Shepack said.

Reno Republican Lisa Krasner is on the Assembly Judiciary committee and asked Monroe-Moreno why the bill was meant to remove an option Nevada Director of Corrections James Dzurenda has said that he would like to retain the ability to house some prisoners in private prisons out of state.

“Private prisons, they run, their bottom line is a profit margin.  It’s not thinking of the best interests of the inmate or the state that that inmate came from,” said Monroe-Moreno in response to Assemblywoman Krasner’s question.

Las Vegas Republican Chris Edwards voted for AB303 in 2017, the bill Governor Sandoval vetoed, but during the hearing on March 7, Mr. Edwards began a sharply-toned, four minute series of comments about the prison system that did not end until the chair of the committee interrupted to ask if the Assemblyman had a question for the presenters.

“Why are we so opposed to using private prisons when they can do, sometimes better than our own prisons,” asked Edwards. “If you write the contract well enough, they can actually provide services better, especially in cases where it is in the interests of the prisoners to not be in the state.”

Listen to the entire interchange between Chris Edwards and Danielle Monroe-Moreno.

Before he asked his question, Assemblyman Edwards carped that the Nevada prison system had as high an employee turn-over rate as for-profit prisons and that state prison staff were grossly under paid.

Both Edwards and Monroe-Moreno agreed that Nevada prison staff need to earn more money, but in the end, Edwards did not understand why Monroe-Moreno was against for profit prisons.

“We do have a high turnover rate because we as state have not given the state correctional officers the resources that they,” Monroe-Moreno said to Assemblyman Edwards.  “But we can change that this legislative session, just like we can outlaw private prisons in the state this legislative session. We can accomplish both of those.”

The committee took no action on AB183.

Audio Catalog of Testimony

No one testified in opposition to the bill, and below you’ll find an audio catalog of those who testified in support of bill.  If we misspelled your name, write us at feedback@nevadacapitalnews.org, and we’ll make the correction.

John Pirro, Clark County Public Defender’s Office

Tonya Brown

Zachary Kenny Santuan, Mass Liberation Project

Erica Castro, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada

Zachary Kahn, campus organizer with Nevada Student Power

Pheung Tran, campus organizer with Nevada Student Power

Maya Yasbek, campus organizer with Nevada Student Power

Edward Coleman

Carter Bundy with the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, AFSCME