I’ve seen several people spam on Facebook or Twitter how private prisons are evil and by association Johnson must be too since he privatized prisons in New Mexico.
I had the opportunity to speak with Johnson about this. As with most stories, there is more to it than the private prison opponents probably realize themselves.
When Johnson became Governor the state of New Mexico had serious problems with prison over crowding. The courts ordered that the overcrowding issue be addressed and the prisons were being run by the courts or federal government at the time Johnson took office. The court order was a result of the overcrowding which was in part blamed for the “New Mexico Penitentiary Riot”. This riot is listed as one of the top 25 riots of all time resulting in 33 deaths and 200 injuries at the state run prison. The NM legislature would not approve any additional funds to build more prisons so Johnson looked to more innovative solutions.
The solution that Johnson implemented was to use private companies to build and run new prisons. These prisons ran at a much lower cost than the government-run prisons even when amortizing-in the initial construction costs. Johnson was responsible for finally meeting the two-decade-old court order to end the overcrowding New Mexico, and I think rightly should take credit for his accomplishment.
Opponents to the private prisons in NM point out that three inmates were stabbed to death and a guard was killed in a separate incident in the new private prisons. I asked Johnson about the issues in the private prisons were having in 1999 and he said that it did make a lot of news, but it was dealt with and there weren’t any more problems reports in the news that he recalled during the rest of his term. (While all death is a tragedy this pales in comparison to the “New Mexico Penitentiary Riot”.)
What about private prison companies lobbying for more prisoners?
Johnson said he never had seen anything related to this. I tend to believe Johnson when he makes statements like this. He’s not your typical politician, he's honest and straightforward, and he’s really a businessperson who got into politics to make a difference so he has nothing to gain from lying nor lose from telling the truth.
(Follow the Prison Money Trail - http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2797/ Johnson’s successor did receive a large amount of money from the private prison lobby so it is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Johnson’s position on ending the drug war would free up a lot of prison space so the argument that Johnson might be bought off by private prison lobby because they want to arrest more people so they can create more prisons holds no water in relation to Johnson.)
What is the state of the prisons in New Mexico today?
“New Mexico’s prisons are experiencing the lowest population and the lowest incidences of violence in their history. Great progress has been made towards improving housing conditions, inmate safety, and opportunities for treatment, education, and rehabilitation.” -- Attorney General’s Task Force Report on Correctional Facilities Oversight for House Memorial 72 in 2008 (Office of New Mexico).
The detractors of private prisons do raise serious issues, but there were even more serious issues with the prisons when Johnson took office. With no financial support from the legislature to correct the problems, he had to think entrepreneurially and came up with a solution that solved the problem within the budget he had to work with.