$100m US jail has everything - except prisoners

IT RISES like a mirage in California's barren Mojave desert, a white stone vision of an ideal city - but for the intimidating rolls of razor wire piled up along the perimeter fence. This is America's newest and, at $100m (pounds 62m), most expensive prison - a 2,300-bed medium-to- high-security facility by the country's largest private prison operator.

There is one problem with this glittering cage, however. It has no prisoners.

The California City Correctional Facility opened two months ago. With the US's prison population soaring, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) built the prison in the confident belief that the justice system would take all the prison beds it could find.

But the state of California, egged on by its powerful prison guards' union, has decided it doesn't like private prisons. So the computerised video surveillance cameras are trained on emptiness, the cell doors gape open, and Daniel Vasquez, the warden, is kicking his heels.

"I hope policymakers will see this as a viable alternative," he says "The state prisons are overcrowded. More than half the 58 counties of California have jails that are overcrowded too. As time goes on we're going to be difficult to ignore."

There is little doubt that the public system is teetering. The US has 1.8 million people, 445 per 100,000, locked up - a proportion unprecedented in modern world history and one that is increasing. California alone houses more than 170,000 offenders, making it the guardian of the biggest single prison system in the world.

The dramatic growth in the prison population is almost entirely due to government policy rather than the crime rate, which has decreased in recent years. Individual states have become tougher, passing longer sentences and imposing stricter parole conditions, while cutting back programmes for mental illness, drug rehabilitation and other social services. Petty delinquents and addicts are thus criminalised, because there is nowhere else to send them.

By now, the criminal justice system has developed what the Atlantic Monthly magazine described as a "prison-industrial complex", with guards' unions and construction companies lobbying lawmakers to build and fill new prisons. The state can barely keep up, however, resulting in deteriorating conditions and scandals involving brutality or neglect by prison guards and, frequently, violent death among inmates.

Private prisons have come into vogue along with the increase in incarceration. There is money to be made not only from the host state's prison population, but also from federal prisoners and from other states too poor to house their own prisoners, which prefer to "export" them instead.

Private prisons indubitably provide superior infrastructure, more up- to-date security and the possibility of better living conditions. But they have raised concerns, particularly because of their habit, at least in the US, of taking whatever prisoners they can get, regardless of the gravity of their crimes and the suitability of throwing them all in together.

At a prison operated by CCA in Youngstown, Ohio, several inmates have died at the hands of maximum-security prisoners who were not supposed to be there. Last year six particularly tough offenders staged a jailbreak just days after CCA had agreed to move its maximum-security prisoners out.

There are doubts, too, about cost-effectiveness. Most private-sector savings come through the use of non-unionised labour in remote locations such as California City; a consequence of this is a high turnover in staff and the risk of inadequate training.

For these reasons, California has resisted the national trend to privatisation. "If you're going to privatise, you want the system to be better, or cheaper, or both. We don't believe either point has been demonstrated," said Bob Presley, secretary of California's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

CCA and other companies accuse the state of bad faith, pointing to the vast campaign contributions made by the main prison guards' union ($4.1m last year, against $280,000 distributed to politicians by CCA) as the only relevant factor. In the company's view, however, no amount of public- sector protectionism is going to hold California's resolve for long, simply because the burden of administering the system is growing too heavy.

CCA is building three unsolicited prisons in California in all. They may be fighting for inmates now - receiving largely from county or federal jurisdictions, if at all - but the company is betting that the lure of that mirage in the desert will soon be irresistible.