Gary Johnson Grassroots Blog

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Johnson's Private Prisons

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 - 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.


  1. Excellent article, keep up the good work. Gary Johnson 2012!

  2. Ok, so I am seeing that private prisons have been a massive failure in Mississippi and not so bad in NM?

    What gives? Prison costs are up by 400% in Mississippi, but are down by 30% in NM and prison populations have followed the same general trajectory... Or so is reported.

    If it is the same private companies involved in both cases, then there is something weird going on.

    Could someone please explain the discrepancy?

    1. As with all human issues, a business or organization is only as good as the people who make it happen. take 10 different people and have them make a ham sandwich and you would get 8 different recognizable ham sandwiches, one person refusing to use pork, and one person asking why they can't make grilled cheese instead. one ham sandwich may have uuber mayo. one may have lettuce and tomato. and at least one person is bound to use rye bread (blegk).

      The failure of any venture often has more to do with the manner of the undertaking than the undertaking itself.

  3. So exactly how could a private company run the prisons cheaper? The costs are the same right? Does this mean that the state employees of the prison system were corrupt?

    Also, private prisons didn't do so well in PA either. They were incarcerating innocent juveniles for profit.

  4. The NM legislature would not approve any additional funds to build more prisons so Johnson looked to more innovative solutions.

    I could be wrong on this, but I think you have this wrong. Johnson vetoed any bills that included increased spending. I think he gets full credit for the lack of funding. You also minimize the way the contracts were awarded and the lack of oversight that Johnson's administration exercised. The deaths in the private prisons were predictable. He hired a food services company to run prisons with one of the most dangerous prison populations in the country. Allowed them to use undertrained staff, to understaff their facilities, and did not use due diligence to assure the state got what it was paying for. Those four deaths resulted from his incompetence.

  5. Gary Johnson may not be perfect. I for one am totally against privatizing the "Corrections" Industry. But he is for ending the war on drugs and restoring personal freedom, which I believe negates his involvement in bringing private prisons to NM. And plus He's a hell of a lot better then Obama or Romney!!!

  6. Private profit on incarceration is a bad sign for any state or country. it may not absolutely mean that the politicians are corrupt, but it does mean that the citizens aren't paying enough attention to how their tax dollars are allocated. with the kind of taxes we pay, there should be plenty of money to house criminals who pose a danger to the people.


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