Proposal to buy prisons raises ethical concerns

Proposal to buy prisons raises ethical concerns

By Kevin Johnson | USA TODAY | March 7, 2012

WASHINGTON – A private prison management company’s proposal to buy government prison facilities, criticized for requiring states to maintain high occupancy rates, also is prompting debate about the firm’s executive who circulated it.

Harley Lappin, the former director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, made the offer to 48 prison officials across the country in a January letter on behalf of Corrections Corporation of America, less than a year after retiring from his federal post.

Civil rights advocates, a state lawmaker and the chief of the federal prison employees union said Lappin’s involvement with the firm’s offer, so soon after leaving his high-profile government post, raises ethical concerns.

“He’s clearly using his connections (in the public prison industry) and is now attempting to profit from it,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, who has spoken against high-incarceration rates.

David Shapiro, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Lappin’s role is “part of the continuing revolving door” between government and private industry.

“It is definitely a concern,” he said.

Company spokesman Steve Owen said Lappin’s involvement as the firm’s corrections director was “very appropriate,” and did not include solicitations of his former agency.

USA TODAY initially sought to speak with Lappin, but questions were referred to firm’s media relations office.

Federal law prohibits designated senior federal government executives from doing business with their former agencies for at least a year after leaving their posts.

Owen said Lappin’s letter was not sent to his former agency. And Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the agency has received no such proposal.

But the text of the company’s offer does indicate that the purchase offer — known as the “corrections investment initiative” — includes the federal government.

“The program is a new opportunity for federal, state or local governments that are considering the benefits of partnership corrections,” Lappin said in the proposal, adding that it could assist governments in managing “challenging corrections budgets.”

The communication goes on to outline the company’s $250 million interest in buying and managing government-owned prison facilities.

As part of a proposed 20-year management agreement, the company would require governments to maintain minimum occupancy rates of 90% for the life of the management contracts.

Owen said the reference to the federal government was meant only to indicate that the program could “apply” to the federal government.

Owen said the notices, which he characterized as a “courtesy heads-up” to Lappin’s state counterparts, were only directed to state governments.

But Dale Deshotel, national president of the prison employees union known as the Council of Prison Locals, said the letter and its reference to the federal system raises concerns about a “conflict of interest.”

“There is no distinction to me,” Deshotel said.

Owen said Lappin was hired last June because of his expertise and distinguished record of government service and there was no attempt to circumvent the rules.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been associated with anything other than a track record of abiding by the rules,” Owen said.

Lappin, appointed Bureau of Prisons director in 2003 after successfully managing the restart of federal executions with the 2001 lethal injection of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, retired last May after being charged with driving under the influence in Annapolis, Md.

At the time, a Justice Department spokeswoman said that the incident had no bearing on his decision to retire.

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