Oklahoma Public Employees Association Deputy Director Scott Barger stepped to the microphone at the Office of Juvenile Affairs Board meeting June 19, 2009 and delivered a stern warning about privatization of juvenile facilities. The Board’s agenda included consideration of an RFP (Request for Proposal) or ITB (Invitation to Bid) for the private construction of a new medium and maximum secure juvenile facility as well as possible private management.
OPEA members from the L.E. Rader Center, Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center and Southwest Oklahoma Juvenile Center had been calling the OPEA office concerned that the agenda item indicated OJA “would require the closing of one or more of our current secure facilities.”
OPEA was the only organization representing state employees at the meeting. In his opening remarks Barger expressed the Association’s concerns that proponents of privatization cite the benefits of free enterprise, saying competition may lead to lower costs. However, privatization also poses significant risks for incarcerated youth.
“For-profit corporations necessarily emphasize the bottom line, and in juvenile services, cost savings rarely result from new and innovative programs or ideas,” he said. “Instead, facilities save money by hiring fewer and less qualified staff, and reducing services and programs such as mental health treatment and education.”
OPEA told the Board that conditions and practices in juvenile facilities are tied directly to the number of staff and the quality of their training. Conditions deteriorate rapidly in a facility run by insufficient, poorly-trained or inexperienced staff, and there are far more incidents involving violence, injury, and excessive use of restraints and isolation, all common occurrences in private juvenile facilities.
“There have been recent reports of abuses in juvenile facilities operated by for-profit corporation,” Barger continued. “Human Rights Watch identified significant problems in the High Plains facility in Colorado. The Pahokee juvenile facility in Florida was the subject of court proceedings brought by public defenders. And The New York Times reported the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in Louisiana was ‘A juvenile prison so rife with brutality, cronyism and neglect that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation.’”
Barger asked the board to consider whether or not a private company was qualified to administer a private facility. “What incentives do they have to support prevention programs or to reduce recidivism?” he said. “None, they need to keep their beds full.”
OPEA also asked what message the OJA would be sending to the citizens of Oklahoma. “Are we conceding that this current administration cannot cost effectively manage the state’s juvenile facilities,” asked Barger. “I don’t think that is the case,” he said.
Barger went on to tell the board that OJA employees should have the first chance to run any new facility. “We support the staff who is working in the facilities under very, very difficult conditions,” he said. “And, after holding the line for you in these antiquated facilities, your employees should have the first opportunity to move into a new, state of the art facility to prove what they can do!”
Barger closed the Association’s comments by urging the board to, “Keep it professional, and keep it public.”
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