Las Vegas looking into privatizing detention center

Las Vegas wants to study privatizing the city's detention center as part of an effort to find ways to cut costs in a time of declining tax revenues and budget deficits.

Saving that money could come at some cost, though, contends the Las Vegas Peace Officers Association, the union that represents city corrections employees. The group took out a full-page newspaper ad in Sunday's Review-Journal denouncing the idea, saying that "public safety should never be for sale."

Deputy City Manager Orlando Sanchez emphasized that the study represents the beginning of the process.

"This is simply a study," he said. "This is an audit of how we operate and if it makes sense for us to go out there and see if there's a market for a private operator."

Still, the city's long-running desire to get concessions from the city's four bargaining units figures into the mix.

"We have been very fortunate with some of our bargaining units," Sanchez said. The firefighters union conceded some pay raises and other cuts, and the city agreed not to study privatizing emergency medical services for the next two years.

"We're looking at all avenues," Sanchez said. "If we're successful with our bargaining units coming to some sort of concessions, a lot of these processes will not have to occur."

Tracy Valenzuela, president of the Peace Officers Association, said dollar signs should not drive the corrections discussion.

"Privatization should not be driven by economics," she said. "We're talking about public safety here."

Privately run prisons are not new. Corrections Corporation of America, founded in the early 1980s, has contracts covering 75,000 detainees in more than 60 facilities across the nation, many of them concentrated in Texas and the Southeast.

GEO Group, another industry leader, manages or owns 117 corrections, detainee or treatment facilities totaling about 80,000 inmate beds.

Corrections Corp. is set to open a 1,072-inmate prison in Nye County on Oct. 1 that will house inmates under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. County officials have welcomed the company, touting the 234 new jobs it's bringing to an area that needs them.

The company used to operate the Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center, previously known as the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility, in North Las Vegas. The Tennessee-based company opted not to keep the contract in 2004, citing high medical costs for inmates.

State officials declared that the private experiment had failed and faulted the company for mental health and dental care provided as a "shambles." The state took over the facility.

If Las Vegas goes down the privatization route, "you've got to be careful," said Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Working Group, which is critical of private detention.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

One of the main pitfalls is inadequate oversight and access to records, he said.

Should privatization be considered, officials also need to look at how well-trained and experienced the corrections personnel will be, he said.

"Do you want professionals to do it, or do you want a guard who was hired at $8.50 an hour?" Kopczynski said. "Ask all the vendors what their turnover rates are. Will they release that information? Do they even keep it?"

Kopczynski also works for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents law enforcement and corrections employees.

Las Vegas' detention center budget is $48 million, Sanchez said. The detention center has 279 full-time positions, according to city documents, and contracts out medical, food, linen, library and commissary services.

Most of the full-time positions, 190, are corrections officers, who have a base salary from $54,193 to $83,171 a year.

The department has more than 40 vacant positions now, and employees have participated in reducing the budget and cutting overtime, the Peace Officers Association advertisement said.

It also mentions the "Arizona 3," felons who escaped from a privately run prison near Kingman, Ariz. One of them was linked to a pair of slayings after the escape.

Las Vegas is well-aware of what's at stake, Sanchez said: "The main thing we have to be sure of is to keep the safety of the city in mind."

The city's detention center has 1,050 beds. There are contracts with Clark County for up to 175 prisoners convicted of gross misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and with the U.S. Marshals Service for up to 35 inmates.

The average daily inmate population is 845.

City detainees have been convicted of misdemeanors, such as lower-level DUI or domestic violence charges.

About 25 percent of those are "special needs," defined as someone who is homeless or with substance abuse or mental health issues.

The City Council could consider awarding a contract for a privatization study as soon as Oct. 6.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at or 702-229-6435.