When the U.S Department of Justice last week announced they would stop using private prisons, many New Mexicans questioned whether New Mexico might follow suit.
The DOJ decision to close private prisons will have no effect on the five privately run prisons in the state, as those contracts are managed by the state.
NM Political Report was unable to reach Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel or his staff about details on the state’s contract with private companies who run prisons. The only private prison in New Mexico with federal ties is set to close in October as the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not renew a contract.
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said the prison closure in Cibola County is an opportunity to expand public prisons in the state.
“If there was any time for the state of New Mexico to own its own prisons and save all that money, now is the time,” McSorley said.
Days after New Mexicans were turning their attention to private prisons in the state, the man arguably most responsible for the spread of privately run prisons in the state was campaigning for president in Albuquerque.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, told NM Political Report that when he was governor the state was in dire need of new prison. The private prisons were a result of the unwillingness of the legislature to pay for them, he said.
“We built those two new [private] prisons, goods and services were the same and the costs were two-thirds,” Johnson said.
Johnson often takes pride in his successful effort to privatize the state’s prison system. While he was not responsible for changing the law to allow private prisons, under his administration, New Mexico saw a rapid increase in privately run correctional facilities.
Critics of Johnson, however, say his push to legalize marijuana and his view on private prisons contradict each other.
McSorley said companies that run private prisons often lobby against attempts to legalize marijuana.
“The police and the guards are some of the biggest opponents of legalization in the nation,” McSorley said.
Johnson told NM Political Report publicly run prisons are just as eager to lock people up.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Johnson said. “Public prisons want to lock people up just as much as private prisons do.”
James Jimenez served as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration under Johnson. Jimenez said it wasn’t just Johnson who pushed for private prisons.
Johnson said he saw no attempts by companies to increase prison populations during his tenure as governor.
“I couldn’t say that private prisons in certain situations don’t lobby for more prisoners,” Johnson told NM Political Report during a press conference. “I will say as governor of New Mexico I did not see one word of lobbying for more prisoners.”
“The Legislature wasn’t really keen on spending capital dollars,” Jimenez said. “They found it somewhat more attractive to use private money.”
McSorley, however, said private prison lobbyists and New Mexico lawmakers in favor of private prisons pulled strings and persuaded opponents to get the majority of lawmakers to approve legislation to allow more private prisons.
“There was a lot of backroom dealing that finally came to a head through the Legislature,” McSorley said.
In announcing the phasing out of private prisons, the DOJ said private prisons do not save much money and are more prone to safety issues than publicly owned prisons.
In the late 1990s, New Mexico saw its own safety issues when a number of riots and killings took place within prisons then run by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. Johnson came under fire by some for his decision not to conduct an independent study of the facilities, opting for a study by the state’s corrections department, then run by Rob Perry.
Perry now serves as second in command to Albuquerque Mayor Richard Perry. NM Political Report reached out to Perry regarding his time overseeing New Mexico prison’s.
A spokeswoman for Perry said he was out of town and could not comment before publication.