In August, Montana witnessed the wages of privatization when four convicted felons and murderers roamed the streets of Helena after breaking out of a van operated by a private, for profit corporation.
Following this horrifying event, MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver submitted the following guest opinion to Montana newspapers:
Privatization doesn’t work
Guest Opinion by Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT
Privatization of public services doesn’t work for Montana, and it doesn’t save money. The recent escape of violent prisoners in Helena is the latest example of the failure of privatization of public services in Montana.
Earlier this month, four prisoners, convicted felons and murderers, escaped from a van during the middle of the day, on a busy street in Helena, a few blocks from a school. They did so while under the control of TransCor, a private, for profit, out-of-state corporation. They escaped from a TransCor trainee, who was left alone to guard the van carrying six felons while her fellow guard went into Burger King.
TransCor was responsible for the escape, but they were not held responsible for evacuating schools, alerting businesses and citizens, tracking down the prisoners and bringing them back into custody.
It was public employees, law enforcement staff from a variety of agencies, who kept the citizens of Helena safe, captured the prisoners, and kept the situation from turning into a tragedy. My heartfelt thanks to them for their quick response and excellent work.
Haunting questions remain
While some might say “all’s well that ends well,” there are many questions that remain unanswered about this frightening incident. How was the decision made to contract out work that had previously been done by public employees? Who made the decision? Was there a competitive bid process? Did anyone consider the alternative of keeping county sheriffs’ departments doing the job and reimbursing them?
What is Montana paying for the TransCor contract? How does it compare with the cost of reimbursing county sheriffs’ departments? What kind of employee training does TransCor require? What are TransCor’s policies and procedures? How does their equipment measure up?
What is TransCor’s track record in other states? Was the state aware that dangerous prisoners have escaped while under the care of TransCor in states ranging from North Dakota to Connecticut?
Finally, most chilling of all, who would bear the responsibility if a citizen had been injured or killed by one of the prisoners?
Montana has a long history of privatization failures. From mental health services to the Department of Revenue POINTS accounting system, policy makers have been all too eager to turn over public services to the private sector, with little or no accountability. These failed privatization experiments have had terrible consequences for Montana’s people, and they usually end up costing taxpayers more, not less.
Profit margin vs. public interest
Business plays a crucial role in Montana, there is no doubt about that. But there is a place for the private sector and a place for the public sector. Private corporations are accountable to their stockholders. Public employees answer to all Montana citizens.
Private companies necessarily have their profit margin at heart – and too often the “bottom line” means cheaper equipment (handcuffs and vans, for example) and cheaper employee training.
The nightmare of escaped murderers running rampant through Helena was a horrifying wake-up call. I sincerely hope Montana policy makers will consider this incident before they again contemplate turning the public’s essential work – keeping our communities safe, educating our children, and caring for our most vulnerable citizens – over to the private sector.